One name constantly reappeared: a continentally-recognised, pint-sized star who impressed in his first World Cup in 2006 and possessed a low centre of gravity, incredible acceleration and an array of jaw-dropping double shuffle dribbles and mesmerising tricks – not Lionel Messi, but Franck Ribéry.
Along with Messi and Ronaldo, some believed that Ribéry was in the same elite, free-roaming pantheon after a brilliant first two seasons at Bayern, where he scored thirty-four goals and assisted a further forty in just eighty-two matches between 2007 and 2009. Despite this, many, particularly those outside of France and Germany, were not wholly convinced – which was a marked contrast to Bayern’s president, Uli Hoeneß, declaring that Ribéry would not be sold for less than €100 million (£80 million). United, in the end, opted for Antonio Valencia for a cool £20 million and given Ribéry’s inconsistency and misdemeanours since then, not to mention Valencia’s impressive displays, Sir Alex Ferguson certainly made the right decision.
That summer, Ribéry was hurt – which has been a re-occurring feeling in a nomadic and restless playing career – and left isolated. The Frenchman believed that the Bayern hierarchy were being unjust and unrealistic with their pricetag, which was accentuated when Ribéry openly flirted with the tangible proposition of joining Florentino Pérez’s adviser and soon to be sporting director, Zinedine Zidane (referred to Ribéry as “the jewel in the crown” of French football in 2006), at Real Madrid. Bayern, though, did not welcome any overtures and even if Ribéry was on a whooping £120,000 per week contract, keeping the Frenchman was key to the Bavarians showing Europe that Die Bayern were still amongst the continental elite.
Still, the Madrid window was Ribéry’s golden opportunity, which, admittedly, he could have pushed much harder for, as Madrid’s Galácticos policy ended with José Mourinho’s preference for younger (only Mourinho’s signings of Hamit Altintop and Ricardo Carvalho at Madrid have been above the age of twenty-nine) players from the summer of 2010 onwards. On the otherside of this thirst, though, Ribéry’s unrest augmented the ill-feeling already established within the dressing-room with Bayern, under Louis van Gaal, having a dangerous Zidanes y Pavones-like policy whereby a small selection (namely Philipp Lahm, Ribéry, Arjen Robbem, Miroslav Klose and Mario Gómez) of indispensable members of the squad were on over £80,000 per week but key young players like Michael Rensing, Diego Contento, Holger Badstuber, Christian Lell and Thomas Müller were on, initially, less than £10,000 per week.
Also, since suffering a serious groin injury when Marseille played Lille on 11 November, 2006, Ribéry has had numerous niggles and lay-offs, and this did not aid his case at Bayern in 2009/2010 – particularly when his first two seasons, where he was deemed to be happy and motivated, were such, predominantly, injury-free successes. So, having begun the season with tendinitis, the Frenchman eventually returned for Bayern’s Bundesliga match against Borussia Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion on 12 September, 2009. Interstingly, though, Bayern began the season indifferently without the Frenchman, with van Gaal already under immense pressure due to Bayern winning just one of their opening four Bundesliga matches, but Ribéry’s return reminded his detractors of his importance to Bayern – regardless of Robben’s signing from Real Madrid that summer.
Ribéry netted a brilliant twenty-yard free kick on 65’, in Bayern’s eventual 1-5 victory over Dortmund, but rather than taunting the home crowd who had been on his back, Ribéry weaved past his teammates and ran straight into an emotional embrace with van Gaal. It seemed a turning point and bond instigator in their relationship, following frosty positional relations (a la Rivaldo, who wanted to play as Barcelona’s, and van Gaal’s, central striker, in 2000) in pre-season.
The tendinitis soon returned, though, ruling Ribéry out of action for the next four months and leading to him missing France’s near-disastrous performances against the Republic of Ireland in the 2010 World Cup play-offs in November. Ribéry returned for Bayern on 23 January in the 3-2 victory over Werder Bremen but the 2009/2010 season – apart from a crucial equaliser against Manchester United in the Champions League quarter-final on 31 March and the opening goal in the 2-1 victory over Schalke on 3 April – was a personal disappointment for the Frenchman, despite Bayern’s eventual Bundesliga triumph. After all, Robben’s brilliant performances – despite, too, suffering from injuries – saw the Dutchman replace Ribéry as Bayern’s consistent talisman, fans’ favourite and Munich billboard adorner.
From this, Ribéry was clearly feeling the pressure to over-perform and this manifested in his committed (wanted to atone for losing the ball after a heavy touch), yet incredibly petulant, stamp on Lisandro López in Bayern’s 0-1 first-leg semi final victory over Lyon on 27 April. Red carded, Ribéry was therefore ruled out of the second-leg in the Allianz Arena and the final against Internazionale at the Santiago Bernabéu on 22 May. Ultimately, it was a reflection of Frenchman’s erratic form – having managed to score and impress in the 4-0 DFB Pokal final win over Werder Bremen on 14 May despite his previous inconsistency – and this, as much as his troublesome injuries, left few clubs wishing to fork out a near-world record fee for the Frenchman.
So, Ribéry, sensing Bayern may have been on the cusp of European glory within the next four seasons and feeling that few elite clubs would be willing to pay Bayern’s asking price, decided to renew his contract for five years and was handed the largest annual salary in Bayern’s history: a whooping €10 million (€192,000, £163,000, per week). It seemed the perfect re-injection of confidence that Ribéry needed before the 2010 World Cup – following not only a dismal season but also national embarrassment – when it was revealed that he had had numerous liaisons with Zahia Dehar, an underage prostitute.
Three other French players, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Sidney Govou, were implicated in a the broad under-age prostitute ring at the notorious Zaman Café in Paris. Even though he clearly believed she was eighteen years of age at the time, Ribéry – who had converted to Islam to marry Wahiba Belhami in 2006 and had had three children with his wife by 2010 – saw his reputation in tatters to a much larger extent than the unattached Ben Arfa, Benzema and Govou. Still, remarkably, Ribéry failed to keep his head down and, along with Nicolas Anelka and Patrice Evra, was one of the main anarchists in France’s World Cup training camp in Knysna.
From this, the shy Yoann Gourcuff, who was seen as Raymond Domenech’s golden boy – in part, due to Gourcuff’s father’s, Christian, influence – after continuing to get into the first XI despite his poor form, was purposely (accentuated by intensity of isolated camp at Knysna) frozen out of squad interaction by Ribéry. Then, when Anelka was sent home, Ribéry was among those who led the mutiny to not train on 21 June in the run-up to the match against South Africa. Remarkably, the day before this, Ribéry had appeared alongside Domenech on Telefoot to play down rumours of squad discontent but this was a desperate ploy to protect himself from further punishment – knowing full well that Anelka was about to be sent home – and preserve any remnants of his popularity with French football fans.
Following the disgraceful tournament, Jérémy Toulalan (1), Ribéry (3), Patrice Evra (5) and Anelka (18) were handed international bans. Summing up his disregard for the French set-up, nearly retiring from international football but for Laurent Blanc’s intervention, Ribéry did not even attend the disciplinary hearing on 17 August – although this was, admittedly, also down to Bayern’s protests to his attendance. Club wise, too, Ribéry was not a popular figure: missing two months of the opening of the 2010/2011 season because of an ankle injury and having his commitment criticised by van Gaal after a lacklustre performance in a specially organised friendly in his return against lower division Unterhaching on 21 November. Ribéry did not regain full fitness until February, suffering further niggles, but van Gaal’s criticism – not to mention, somewhat ironically, the fact that the Dutchman’s departure was imminent, so, subsequently, van Gaal’s disciplinary and mathematical-like tactical shackles were loosened – eventually had the desired effect.
Ribéry became a key team player for Bayern in the second-half of 2010/2011 and his goal and three assists in the 6-0 win over Hamburg on 12 March, 2011 epitomised a brilliant return to form. This coincided with Blanc instantly restoring Ribéry to his first XI, following the end of his suspension, and Ribéry was quick to call a press conference, upon being called-up for the Euro 2012 qualifier against Luxembourg on 25 March, 2011, to publicly apologise for the Knysna mutiny and his conduct in his personal life. Remarkably, amid all the previous controversy and injuries, 2010/2011 – up to that year – was the Frenchman’s best season since an ankle lay-off suffered during Euro 2008: recording eleven goals and twenty-one assists in just thirty-two matches.
Under Juup Heynckes, 2011/2012 has been an even greater success for the more complete Ribéry: being allowed more creative freedom, compared to what he had under van Gaal, yet, somewhat ironically, beginning to track back; and thriving in Heynckes’ 4-2-3-1, which has seen Ribéry cut inside from the left flank to devastating effect and combine brilliantly with Lahm on the left and through the middle with the trequartista of either Toni Kroos or Müller. This led to, arguably, Ribéry’s greatest season at the Allianz Arena: netting sixteen goals and twenty-six assists in forty-six games. While Ribéry’s punch on Robben in the bowels of the Allianz Arena at half-time of the 2-1 Champions League first-leg victory over Real Madrid on 17 April was incredibly regrettable, owed to the trivial matter of the Dutchman not letting Ribéry take a 40′ free-kick, the twenty-nine year old – otherwise – seems to have finally matured.
After all, it was no coincidence that Bayern struggled, psychologically more than anything else, once he went off after winning a penalty (he may well have taken the said spot-kick that Robben missed, if not Ivica Olić’s in the shoot-out) against Chelsea in the Champions League final on 97′ on 19 May. Still, while many will naturally be reserved about Ribéry’s return to form, with a new injury lay-off seemingly inevitable, his newfound committment and sincere sorrow for his previous actions have been crucial to him regaining self-belief and thriving in the delicate dynamics of the Allianz Arena and the Stade de France. From this, Ribéry has clearly realised the error of his ways and this was evident in a recent interview with L’Equipe:
I was the boy next door who always knew what it meant to have no money. That changed when I turned professional. I was crazy. [On Dehar] I was such an idiot, like never before. Now, however, I am less naive, less spontaneous. Everything has gone in the right direction for me. In Munich, I burst back to form: people smile at me and pat me on the shoulder.
Euro 2012 – despite France’s, ultimately, disappointing overall tournament – saw Ribéry back to something not far off his international best, too. Playing in the free-roaming playmaker role – linking up with Karim Benzema, Jérémy Ménez and Samir Nasri to great effect - Ribéry set up Nasri’s goal against England on 11 June, 2012; played in a floating, fantasista-like role at times against Ukraine – in setting up the assists before the actual assists of Ménez and Yoann Cabaye’s goals – and gave Oleh Husyev a torrid time on 15 June; and, against Sweden on 19 June, for the first time in many years, Ribéry performed well in a French defeat and his unselfish play, and tormenting of Andres Granqvist, saw him come out of the 2-0 defeat as one of France’s only positives. Admittedly, against Spain on 24 June, Ribéry was given little room by Alvaro Arbeloa, but France’s possession, phased creativity and pre-wing play was desolate so Les Bleus‘ eventual result had little to do with Ribéry’s ‘usual’ international stage-fright, ‘inability’ to spearhead a comeback or over-elaboration.
At twenty-nine years of age, it may be tempting to suggest that Ribéry’s opportunity to star in, and win, a Champions League, European Championship and World Cup has long passed. However, one thing is for sure – given the undeniable scrutiny, fall-outs, injuries and mid-career controversy – Franck Ribéry has regained his form and from this, temperamentally and morally, has undergone something much more than ‘just’ a footballing renaissance.