Football history is littered with great players. Some, regardless of whether they achieved on an individual level or as part of an iconic team, are lauded in the following decades for their talents. Their contributions to the game are praised endlessly, until they reach that level of prominence that is reserved for the few and yearned for by the many – legendary status. The kind of renown that earns these players the right to be considered amongst the best to ever play the game.
Most football fans, though individual in taste on account of the teams they follow, will come to a general consensus on exactly what kind of player falls into this category. Though often influenced by what league they watch, the time period in which they grew up, or any number of other variables, the same names tend to circulate in conversation. Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio and the stand-out individuals of the Milan side led by Arrigo Sacchi in the late 1980s, such as Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten, are just a few names that had an immeasurable impact on Italian football. These names are also generally regarded as some of the most talented players to ever grace a football field.
Other players, however, while no less successful in terms of trophies won and medals earned, can sometimes fall into a strange kind of limbo. Somewhere between legendary status, nostalgia and being overlooked entirely. Like Zinedine Zidane, there is another French attacking midfielder who took Serie A by storm in its 1990s heyday. Unlike Zizou, however, he has, for the majority of football fans, fallen into that strange limbo. The mere mention of his name has the ability to evoke a sentimental and yet self-chastising groan from the mouths of those who are reminded of him.
“Djorkaeff! For me, Djorkaeff is a very underrated player. The number of times he saved France with important goals!”
These are the words of ex-Arsenal and France star Robert Pires, spoken in an interview with French Football Weekly in 2014. Pires was discussing the hierarchy of the players and staff at Clairefontaine while he was representing the national side. He went on to hint at why Djorkaeff may not have earned all the potential plaudits he was due:
“Personally, I learnt a lot from training with him. The thing with Youri Djorkaeff is that he is a little in the shadow of Zidane. But honestly, he was a great player.”
Being in the shadow of greatness is something to which a young Djorkaeff will have no doubt been accustomed. His father, Jean, was a distinguished professional player, most notably for Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon and Marseille. Having won the French Cup twice during his playing career, Jean was all too aware of the pressures that faced Youri when he too made the decision to enter the world of professional football:
“People always love to make comparisons,” he said while discussing his son’s meteoric rise during an interview with FIFA in 2005, “What's more, people think that if your Dad was a former international everything is much easier for you, which is completely wrong. The son always ends up being judged according to his father's career. I told Youri he should never be satisfied with an average performance. And he very quickly imposed his personality by showing everyone that the talents he has are all his own.”
And show everyone, he most certainly did. Arriving in Italy to sign for Inter in 1996, Djorkaeff was already well established, having plied his trade in his native France for over a decade. Stints with Grenoble, Strasbourg, Monaco and PSG saw him leave the capital for the Lombardy region, already in the habit of winning silverware. Having captured the Coupe De France with Monaco in 1991, Djorkaeff’s swansong season saw him leave PSG a winner of both the Trophée des Champions and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, part of a side that boasted the talents of Bernard Lama, Paul Le Guen and Patrice Loko.
Despite these notable achievements, Djorkaeff was under no illusion regarding the size of the task that awaited him in his first journey to play abroad:
“I've always felt like a citizen of the world, but I make sure I have strong roots in whichever city I find myself in,” he said in an interview with Inter Channel, "When I arrive somewhere, I learn its history, take on the good things, respect the traditions and listen before opening my mouth.” Djorkaeff was also well versed in the footballing traditions of the city, describing the famous San Siro stadium, home to both Milan clubs, as ‘the cathedral of football’.
The Frenchman did much to lay the foundations for a long and fruitful relationship with followers of the Nerazzurri, scoring an impressive 17 goals in 49 appearances across all competitions. This particular feat was made all the more remarkable by the fact that his league tally made him Inter’s top scorer in Serie A in his debut season. Perhaps his most memorable goal that year, and one for which his time in Italy is best remembered, came against Roma in January 1997.
Pouncing on a failed clearance by the Roma defence, which had looped the ball high into the air, Djorkaeff rifled the ball into the far top-left-hand corner by way of an acrobatic bicycle kick. Making it 2-0 just before half time, this proved a pivotal moment in the game, with Inter eventually winning 3-1. The strike helped earn the Frenchman a place in the hearts of those of a Black and Blue persuasion, something he himself recognised during the same interview with Inter Channel in February 2016.
“It’s something for Inter fans everywhere,” he said, “because it’s a goal that’s still played all over the world and you can see the San Siro, the Inter shirt, the Curva Nord and my team-mates. There was a photo of that goal on the season ticket the following season. I don’t need my passport when I come to Italy, I just pull that season ticket out.”
That particular recollection of his most famous goal sets Djorkaeff apart from other players. It also helps to identify a train of thought that comes naturally to the man. He has a clear respect of heritage, tradition and of other people’s culture in general. He deemed this to be an important part of settling into life at Inter. While most other players would talk about such a goal from a very personal perspective, highlighting their own individual pride, Djorkaeff sees the importance of the goal not only for what it shows about his own, considerable technical ability, but also how it provided a snapshot of the team and fans as a whole.
This selflessness and desire to do what is best for the team was continued when Djorkaeff was asked his opinion on whether the club should sign Ronaldo in the summer of 1997. He spoke personally with the man he would later refer to as ‘his president’, the then club chief, Massimo Moratti.
“He came to Appiano Gentile and told me there was a possibility he could buy Ronaldo but he wanted my opinion. I said to him: ‘Buy the lad immediately. He will take us to a new level and we need this calibre of player.’”
The Snake, as Djorkaeff would go on to become affectionately known, was not wrong. Having lost the UEFA Cup final in 1997 to German side Schalke 04, the addition of Ronaldo would ensure Inter would be victorious in the same fixture just a year later – Ronaldo scoring the third of three goals in a convincing 3-0 defeat of Lazio. It was a fitting outcome for Djorkaeff, with the Nerazurri no.6 helping the club secure their first European trophy in four years, all in his hometown of Paris. Add to that the capturing of the World Cup with France in the same city just two months later, and the summer of 1998 represented the pinnacle of Djorkaeff’s career.
Sadly, the Frenchman’s time at Inter would come to an end just a year later when he left for German side Kaiserslauten in the summer of 1999, following a disappointing eighth place finish with Inter in Serie A. Unremarkable stints at Bolton and Blackburn Rovers, followed by a season in MLS with New York Red Bulls, brought an end to what was at times a glittering career for the second-generation footballer.
On reflection, that Youri Djorkaeff doesn’t receive the same accolades as those he shared the stage with is a little baffling. Then again, his willingness to share that stage so graciously with names bigger – and sometimes more bombastic – may have contributed to the fact that his name is often forgotten in discussions pertaining to the trophy laden teams of which he was so regularly a part.
However, where Youri Djorkaeff’s talents may go under appreciated elsewhere in the world, they certainly do not on the banks of the Curva Nord. And it seems, for the man himself, the feeling is very much mutual.
“I’ll always remember the bond I had with the Inter fans,” he said while supporting the Inter Forever project on a trip to China in 2015, “Being a part of the Nerazzurri history is a true honour – I was able to achieve big things with the club.”
Words by Laura Bradburn: @WeeMan88
Laura has had a long love affair with Calcio that began thanks to a certain Gabriel Batistuta. Whether it's a match to decide the Scudetto or a battle at the other end of the table, she can be found on her couch most weekends taking in the wonders of Italian football. You can read more of her musings at www.goodfeetforaweeman.wordpress.com