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The Prince of Uruguay, how Zinedine Zidane idolised his mercurial ways and his son slept in his shirt

Enzo Francescoli, with his guile, movement and class, was an irresistible playmaker.

Image: Peter Robinson

WHEN SCOTLAND FACED Uruguay in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, they had to win to get out of the group.

Instead, with Sir Alex Ferguson in charge, they were held to a 0-0 draw in what was a ferocious, violent clash.

The South Americans were reduced to 10 men after just 56 seconds after Jose Batista’s awful challenge on Gordon Strachan. It set the tone for the remainder of the game – a bitter, contentious affair with the Uruguayan players experts in the dark arts.

There was much to complain about in the aftermath – and rightly so. Ferguson bore the brunt of the criticism after he decided to drop the 33-year-old Graeme Souness, who had been struggling in the intense heat.

But, according to Craig Brown – who was part of Ferguson’s back-room team – there was another reason why Scotland were heading home early.

“A player who gave the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen,” is how he described Enzo Francescoli.

He played our entire back four on his own.”

By that stage, the playmaker had already been voted the best player in Argentina, after guiding River Plate to the 1986 title. He slotted seamlessly into the history of deft, playmaking talent the country specialised in and was a thrilling, exuberant star for the club. But he signed for RC Paris in France after the World Cup – the start of an eight-year stint in Europe.

Soccer - World Cup Mexico 86 - Group E - Denmark v Uruguay Source: Peter Robinson

He shone in the French capital but never won anything and the team eventually went bankrupt. When Marseille came calling, it seemed a perfect fit. And in his solitary campaign with them, he was crowned a champion.

Despite only staying at the club for just one season, Francescoli’s legacy is immensely strong there and his influence and impact undeniable.

“He was my favourite player and I used to hang around to watch him train,” said Zinedine Zidane.

I used to wish I would meet him. To me, he’s the one.”

The pair did meet. On the pitch too. In 1996, just after Zidane had moved to Juventus, they faced River Plate in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo.

Juve had beaten Ajax in the Champions League final while River, with Francescoli as captain, got the better of Colombian side America in the Copa Libertadores decider.

Before he faced Zidane in Japan, Francescoli was told of how he was the French midfielder’s idol.

“I was stunned when I found out about that,” he said later.

“That’s why I gave him my shirt after that game.”

The shirt was for Zidane’s infant child who had been born the previous March. Zidane, as a nod to his favourite ever player, had called him Enzo.

Zidane later revealed that Enzo – now 22 and part of the Real Madrid squad – slept in Francescoli’s jersey as a baby.

Soccer - FIFA World Cup Italia 90 - Group E - Uruguay v Spain - Stadio Friuli, Udine Source: Ross Kinnaird

For club and country, Francescoli was a leader. With River, he won five domestic championships and in his mid-30s – between 1995 and 1997, he still managed to score over 20 goals each season.

Twice named as the best player in South America, he inexplicably managed to do it a decade apart (1984 & 1995).

At the time, he ploughed a lonely furrow for Uruguayan football. The likes of Daniel Fonseca and Ruben Sosa were a decent enough supporting cast but the group just wasn’t strong enough. There were disappointments at World Cup tournaments – second-round exits in ’86 and ’90 and he struggled to properly leave his mark in Italy too during stints with Calgiari and Torino.

Still, with his mesmeric, balletic movement, quick feet, magnetic touches and those dark, sunken eyes, ‘The Prince’ is a hero, an icon and football royalty.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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