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Jean-Pierre Papin: 'Football is a universal language'

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An idol to a whole generation of supporters, the former French centre-forward and current RC Strasbourg manager Jean-Pierre Papin, 43, has donned the shirt of many a European club in his career

12 o’clock at the Meinau stadium; training has finished and the first players of Racing Club Strasbourg (RC Strasbourg) start to head back to the changing rooms, followed a few moments later by manager Jean-Pierre Papin, who is wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with his initials. A few minutes later, he joins us in his office, looking the ‘real deal’: a charismatic coach who is determined, self-assured and exhibits true sporting spirit.

Football calling

Born into a professional footballing family, it was through following his dad on the pitch with his mother that Papin realised that this sport was the only thing he wanted to do. His career started at the age of seven when he joined youth clubs of Jeumont and Trith Saint-Léger. He moved on to the National Football Institute at Vichy, and rapidly climbed the ranks. In 1984 he made his name in the French Second Division with Valencienne before signing for top Belgian club Club Brugges K.V. in 1985, where he played in the premier division.

Papin's is a not only a story of hard work - of learning the tools of the trade and undergoing vigorous physical training - but also of luck. 'You need time to be good, you need time to be excellent,' he says. 'Being a footballer looks easy from the outside but it is very demanding, especially from a physical point of view. After that, you need a lot of luck in order to avoid getting injured or to make the right choices; it’s something at least 40% of your success is dependant on.'

These are goalscorer traits, opening the door for his selection for the national team for the first time in 1986, for a match against Northern Ireland. 'To be a part of the French national team is to be part of the twenty best French players in the world, and that in itself is already a massive source of satisfaction,' Papin says. He took part in the 1986 World Cup, in which he led the Blues to a third place finish. On his return to France, he signed for Olympique de Marseille. He was the French championships’ top goalscorer for five seasons in a row between 1988 and 1992.

'European player'

Jean-Pierre Papin is initially recognised as a European player by the 'Golden Ball' he was awarded in 1991. It recognises the best European footballer of the year. Throughout the course of his career, he passed through the ranks of many of Europe's big clubs, including FC Girondins of Bordeaux, FC Bayern Munich and A.C. Milan. 'I was lucky to be able to do the job I enjoy in three different countries, because football is not the same everywhere. I was fortunate because learning the footballing culture elsewhere other than in one country alone is a truly excellent experience.'

Plying your trade on an international scale generally evokes certain constraints. The ex-footballer notably remembers an injury he picked up in Germany. He still regrets to this day not having been able to speak the language sufficiently at that moment in time to explain the extent of his wound. Finally he went via a translator, and even then had to return to France to get adequate treatment. According to Papin, the best way to adapt yourself remains to learn the language. However, he believes there still are problems of communication and misunderstanding today between the players themselves, 'since the first language spoken is football, therefore it is a little universal.'

Being in a foreign club also means that footballers could one day have to play against a team from their home country. This, for example, is what happened at the time of the World Cup in 1986, when Papin recalls having to play for his team at the time, Bayern Munich, against a French club, the Girondins of Bordeaux. Without any hesitation, he proclaims identifying himself at that point 'to my club. Once on the pitch, it is the club that matters, and not your country of origin.'

Hanging boots

The end of his playing career does not mean that Papin has completely hung up the boots. He progressively headed towards a career in management, passing initially by the Basin of Arcachon from 2004 to 2006, before obtaining his coaching qualifications.

Papin finds that being a manager is far removed from his former footballing glories. 'As a player, you do everything. As a manager, you do everything to be done. That sounds similar but on a daily basis it is nothing like it.' It is currently his job to manage the heterogeneity of his multicultural team, to make them progress and be able to gain promotion to the premier division, and succeed. 'To win basically means to finish in the top three.'

Real social phenomenon

For Papin, football is not only a sport, it is also a 'social phenomenon in which racial barriers disappear. 'Nevertheless, we must not forget the issue of stadium violence.' The problem has been around for a long time, and one that Papin himself has experienced. 'It's not like there are a thousand clubs at which this type of problem happens, but at two or three it definitely is a recurring problem. The only problems that I have had have been at Paris, Saint-Etienne and Lens, but even those were from time to time.'

While disappointed that Michel Platini, the new UEFA president and ex-French number 10, has half of Europe against him, Papin is delighted to see that 'someone who has some very clear ideas on the game' is heading the organisation.

On Doctor Babel's couch

Do you feel that you belong to your religion, to your country or to Europe?


What does the word Europe symbolise for you?


How many European languages do you speak?

French, Italian, German, English and a bit of Flemish

What part of Europe that you do not know would you like to discover in the future?


In your opinion, does Europe have borders?

To be honest, more

Which European city stands out for you?


Which is your favourite European cuisine?


In which European country would you most like to live?

Knowing me, Greece

Which prominent European figure stands out to you?

In my head, I can only think of politicians, but in fact, that is not what I want to say! It is hard… ah Princess Diana

What advantages does Europe give you?


Does the constitution seem necessary to you?

It is essential

Do you think France (your country) plays an important role in Europe?

I think so

Which European event stands out for you?

The fall of the Berlin Wall

Europe in 15 years time?

To be honest, no much more different from nowadays

What is your motto?

Droit au but! - 'straight to the goal'

Translated from Jean-Pierre Papin : « Le football, c’est une langue universelle »