French great Henri Michel, exiled at 40, remembered as 'Papa'

Henri Michel, who led France to the Olympic goal medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in his first coaching job at the age of 36 and third place at the 1986 World Cup, died on Tuesday at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer.

He was only 40 years old when he was fired as national team coach in 1988 and spent all but one year of the rest of his long coaching career in exile, working mostly in Africa.

Born in Aix-en-Provence, Michel played 532 games for Nantes, France's best club in the 1960s and 1970s, and played 58 times for France before retiring in 1982 to take over the Olympic team. He replaced Michel Hidalgo as French national team coach after the Bleus won Euro 1984.

Before that, Michel led France -- essentially a national "B" team -- to an Olympic gold medal, first playing in Annapolis, Maryland, then drawing 97,451 and 101,799 fans for the semifinals and gold-medal game at the Rose Bowl, where the huge crowds convinced FIFA it needed to organize the World Cup in the United States.

The 1986 French World Cup team featured the great midfield with Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez. But a year after France finished third at the World Cup, beating Brazil in an epic quarterfinal before losing to Germany (again) in the semifinals, Platini retired, as did other key players.

The national team was in transition, and Michel did not see eye-to-eye with the Bleus' new outspoken star, Eric Cantona, whom he suspended after Cantona famously declared that if he handed out Oscars, he'd give Michel the one for being a "bag of s***."

When France failed to qualify for Euro 1988 and was held to a 1-1 tie by tiny Cyprus in its second 1990 World Cup qualifier, French soccer leaders outside the federation and key media members plotted to dump Michel, and French federation president Jean Fournet-Fayard fired him on All Saints' Day and replaced him with the popular Platini.

Platini led France to the Euro 1992 but France failed to qualify for the 1990 and 1994 World Cup finals before it won for the first time at home in 1998.

Michel coached one season at Paris St. Germain, then spent the rest of his coaching career abroad. He took three African teams to the World Cup: Cameroon (1994), Morocco (1998) and Ivory Coast (2006). He would have taken Tunisia to the finals in 2002 but was fired after the Africa Cup of Nations earlier in the year.

In all, Morocco coached eight different national teams and seven different clubs in a 28-year coaching career. He became sick while coaching in Kenya in 2012 and moved back to his home in Lebanon, where he lived with his wife. He was known for his brutal honesty -- "We have weaknesses everywhere," he said after being fired as Tunisia coach, "tactically, technically, mentally, physically" -- and love of the good life. His strong character made him a castoff in France, but those who played for him swore by him.

“Aside from his extensive career, Henri was an exceptional man,” said Platini, who played with him at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. “A faithful friend with a rare sense of loyalty. Someone with whom you could go to the end of the earth without ever doubting his support or presence.”

Yannick Stopyra, a forward on the 1986 World Cup team, told L'Equipe how he was upset at the start of the tournament in Mexico because he was not starting and went to the hotel bar alone one night and ordered a tequila.

When the coaching staff showed up the bar, he was embarrassed, but Michel came over and sat with him. Stopyra tried to go back to his room but Michel ordered him another tequila and cheered him up. Stopyra went on to score in the final group match against Hungary and round-of-16 win over Italy.

At the 1998 World Cup in France, Morocco was one of the most exciting teams. It appeared to have qualified for the round of 16 when it beat Scotland, 3-0, but it was eliminated when Norway upset Brazil, 1-0, thanks to a last-minute penalty kick. Morocco's King Hassan II granted Michel Moroccan citizenship.

Mustapha Hadji, the star of Morocco's 1998 World Cup team, said he and his teammates were so devoted to Michel that they called him "Papa."

On Tuesday, Moroccan soccer was in mourning.

1 comment about "French great Henri Michel, exiled at 40, remembered as 'Papa'".
  1. frank schoon, April 25, 2018 at 9:53 a.m.

    Great Coach, he disapproved the theory that you can't have 4 gifted technical midfield players to function as team for you need a some piano carriers for balance...WRONG... France had a great team with Rocheteau and Didier Six...Great sweeper as well...They deserved to win EC '84

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