When Marseille overcame AC Milan in the 1993 European Cup final, few could have imagined that centre-back Marcel Desailly would be playing a starring role further upfield just 12 months later for the Rossoneri.
However, the way in which the Ghana-born French international took to the unfamiliar role of midfield enforcer, made him a Diavolo legend and a global superstar during five trophy-laden years at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.
Part of the Nantes youth set-up that also produced 1998 World Cup-winning captain Didier Deschamps before, Desailly had already been dubbed ‘The Rock’ for his tenacious tackling and commanding physical presence before following him to Marseille in 1992
The transfer was also a symbol of the Frenchman’s character and professionalism, with the riches of Monaco on offer ignored by a hugely ambitious 23-year-old, who wanted to fill his trophy cabinet with medals rather than cash.
“I wanted Marseille, but my family were saying go to Monaco,” Desailly admitted in 2016. “I said no, I am ambitious it’s not just about money.”
“I have not been a skilful, talented player. I’ve been a serious player all my life in my diet, sleeping, everything, but the luck of coming to clubs that win is also important.”
Ligue 1 and Champions League crowns rewarded that attitude almost immediately before a slice of luck took him to Milan when Marseille were demoted to the second-tier for match-fixing.
Early that season the Rossoneri were scouting Alen Boksic at the Stade Velodrome, only for Desailly to star as a libero. With midfielder Zvonimir Boban struck down by injury and in swooped Milan to take advantage of Les Olympiens’ plight.
Few expected Desailly to play with Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Filippo Galli and even Paolo Maldini ahead of him at centre-back and a three foreigner rule in Serie A.
However, within weeks, he had become indispensable to coach Fabio Capello, but in an unfamiliar midfield role after embracing his new surroundings in typical Desailly fashion.
Forming an imperious midfield pairing alongside Demetrio Albertini, Milan secured the Scudetto and Champions League. Images of The Rock strolling upfield from deep to curl a wonderful fourth past Barcelona and rekindling memories of Frank Rijkaard’s winning strike in 1990 stand out.
Non-Serie A fans would have mistakenly labelled Desailly as a box-to-box goalscoring midfielder, whereas that was one of just seven strikes for the Diavolo. The rest largely close-range, while important, efforts.
Suddenly Desailly was a household name across Italy and Europe. His popularity grew to such an extent that he and Paul Ince – enforcing with similar tenacity across the city with Inter – fronted the marketing for Adidas Predator.
The Lion-like snarling image which they had him and the Englishman portray, was far removed from the image many will have of Desailly. A beaming smile often spread across his face, as he dominated midfield from the first minute to last.
Unfortunately for Milanisti, a golden era was coming to an end as Premier League riches increased and his preference to return to defence saw Desailly head to Chelsea after playing a vital role in that position during France’s 1998 World Cup triumph.
The London club only won two major honours with the Frenchman forming the bedrock of their defence, leaving many to wonder what else Milan would have achieved if left to patrol the Rossoneri engine room.