At, 6ft 1in (1.86m) and 12.5 stone (80kg), Marcel ‘The Rock’ Desailly is more of a mighty oak or a towering redwood. But his strength, toughness and unyielding nature at the heart of some of Europe’s finest defences led to his rather stonier nickname.
“’The Rock’ was amazing,” said former teammate, Gustavo Poyet. “He was a winner, which we appreciated at Chelsea.”
The man who played behind him at Marseille and for the World Cup-winning France team agreed: “Marcel was less of a leader and more of a warrior,” said goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. “Desailly was a rock.”
Born in Accra, the capital of Ghana, as Odenke Abbey, he took the name Desailly when his mother married a French diplomat and relocated to France in 1972, when he was four.
His father hoped he’d go into academia, but the youngster fell in love with football at school and followed his half-brother Seth Adonkor to Nantes’ renowned youth team. There he slotted into central defence alongside a young Didier Deschamps. He broke into the Nantes reserves at 17 and made his professional debut at 18.
His assuredness and power was noticed and he was quickly presented with a choice: Monaco or Marseille? Both wanted to lure him away from Nantes at the end of the 1991-92 season.
“I nearly signed for Monaco because it was a more stable club,” said the now-48 year old. “My family were in favour of Monaco. At Marseille everything is more crazy and there’s a lot more pressure. But that’s what appealed to me. I need the pressure of a big challenge.
“Signing for Marseille was a dream come true. Everything that happened to me afterwards was magic. Sometimes I still have trouble explaining it all to myself today!”
In the OM dressing room, Desailly was rubbing shoulders with Barthez, Rudi Voller, Alen Boksic, his new defensive partner Basile Boli and his old one, Marseille captain Deschamps. His work ethic and study of the senior players helped him establish himself quickly.
OM topped Ligue 1 at the end of the season, earning a title that would ultimately be rescinded after controversial chairman Bernard Tapie was hit by a match-fixing scandal, but the team also made it to the first Champions League final, against the powerhouses of Europe, AC Milan.
Milan boasted football royalty like Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, who’d formed the core of their double European Cup-winning 1989 and ’90 side. Desailly’s side were firm underdogs. The Italians had also walked off the pitch in the European Cup quarter-final after a floodlight failure in Marseille two years earlier, so there was a history.
In Munich’s Olypiastadion, the French side kept van Basten and co. at bay and when Boli rose to meet a 43rd-minute Abedi Pele corner, Desailly and his fellow defenders closed the game out to become the first French team to win the European Cup/Champions League.
“The 1993 victory was a special occasion,” said Desailly. “It was the first time a French club had won the competition. The first time for a club which is a bit crazy, with fans who are a bit mad, too, but in a positive way.
“And we went and won it at a delicate time for the club, a delicate time for our chairman, Bernard Tapie, so it was something special. It was unique.”
Sanctions followed – OM were stripped of the Ligue 1 title, relegated and banned from defending their European title – and Milan had already identified one of their players as a priority signing.
Desailly would join the Italian side and return to his second straight Champions League final, where he’d score Milan’s fourth in a 4-0 romp past Barcelona.
After more than 130 Serie A appearances, Desailly spent the summer with his national side, featuring Barthez and captained by Deschamps, winning the World Cup before joining Chelsea for six seasons as club skipper. In 2000, he would add a European Championship to his CV.
But it’s Marseille that retains a special place in his heart.
“You always remember your first time,” he said. “It was a great feeling, particularly as nobody was expecting that Marseille team to win it.”