Milan: Papin's Pain
When Jean-Pierre Papin moved from Marseille to AC Milan for £10.8m in summer 1992 he became the most expensive player in Europe and the first high-profile Frenchman to join the world’s greatest league since Michel Platini.
His two years at San Siro saw the Rossoneri win consecutive scudetti and reach two Champions League finals, including a memorable evisceration of Barcelona in the 1994 final. However, despite the medals and the glory, Papin’s time in Italy was a strangely frustrating tale as he struggled to fully establish himself in Fabio Capello’s star studded lineup – even in the absence of a stricken Marco Van Basten.
When the Frenchman finally packed his bags for Bayern Munich in 1994, it came as a relief for all parties. So, why did Europe’s premier marksman, in the prime of his career, fail to hit the heights at San Siro?
After an astounding 38 goals in 44 appearances for Marseille in 1991-92, the fourth consecutive season he’d hit the 30-goal mark in France and fifth consecutive year he’d topped the league’s goalscoring charts, the 29-year-old was the hottest property in European football. Nicknamed ‘Papinades’ after his stunning signature volleys, Papin’s electrifying exploits had earned him the highest individual prize in football, the Ballon d’Or in 1991.
The one trophy that continued to elude him was the European Cup - he’d come close enough in 1991, firing Marseille to the final only to lose on penalties. For Papin there was only one other team who could help him fulfil his ultimate dream. After watching Sacchi’s great Milan side dismantle Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the 1989 final, he decided it would be perfect to one day play for the San Siro giants.
Papin made his debut in a 1-0 home win over Foggia alongside Marco Van Basten and despite missing the next three games, scored his first goals in the following two matches – a 5-3 rollercoaster win against Paul Gascoigne’s Lazio and 2-0 away win at Parma. Despite the hefty price tag, Papin knew Van Basten remained the main man and it was the prospect of playing alongside the Dutchman that, in the Frenchman’s own words, made his “heart race”.
It was a sign of what could’ve been a devastating partnership.
Unfortunately, Van Basten’s ankle injuries limited his playing time to just 15 Serie A appearances that season – the sumptuous one-two combination that resulted in the first of Van Basten’s four goals against IFK Göteborg was a sign of what could’ve been a devastating partnership.
Despite Van Basten’s injuries, Papin still found it hard to nail down a starting place as Fabio Capello’s rotation policy saw the striker berths shared with Ruud Gullit and Italians Gigi Lentini, Danielle Massaro and Marco Simone. Compounding the Frenchman’s frustrations was the foreigner rule that restricted Milan to selecting just three non-Italians per matchday squad. This would remain Papin’s biggest obstacle throughout his time in Italy because, along with Van Basten and Gullit, the Rossoneri’s star-studded squad included Frank Rijkaard, Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savićević.
This meant that despite his hefty price tag, Papin often found himself out of the squad entirely for long, frustrating spells. Unsurprisingly, Papin struggled to find the net consistently when he did make it on the pitch and managed just three goals in seven appearances after his strike against Parma in matchday seven.
Things finally clicked after Christmas as Van Basten’s continuing absence saw Papin thrust back into the first team, an opportunity the Frenchman grabbed in devastating fashion. Papin scored seven goals in seven games, including a double and an assist in a 4-0 win over Sampdoria at San Siro. Sadly, Capello’s penchant for rotation soon saw Papin back on the sideline, only scoring again in the final game of the season, a 2-2 draw at Genoa.
It had been a strange season for Papin, doing well when given a run in the team, helping Milan win the Serie A title and finishing the season as the club’s joint top scorer (20 in all competitions), despite the truncated playing time. He even appeared as a 54th minute sub in the Champions League final as Milan lost to Marseille of all teams. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the former L’OM legend, whose principal reason for leaving the French club had been to win the ultimate club prize.
The following season, Papin’s final year in Italy, was perhaps even more frustrating, as Milan added even more foreign talent to the squad. In came Florin Răducioiu, Brian Laudrup and Marcel Desailly, adding to the increasingly more influential Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savićević, putting another squeeze on the Frenchman’s playing time.
Capello succumbed to his urge to tinker and began rotating his front line.
The season started positively enough for Papin; selected as the first-choice striker in Van Basten’s continued absence and scoring in three successive games in September. Papin’s purple patch wasn’t allowed to linger long as Capello succumbed to his urge to tinker and began rotating his front line between Massaro, Simeone and his new Romanian recruit from Brescia, Răducioiu.
Once again, Papin’s form suffered with the stop-start selections and he managed to score only once more before Christmas, albeit a special one, the second of Milan’s goals in a 2-1 win over Inter. In the new year, the Frenchman found himself out of the squad entirely with the emergence of the starlet Savićević as the permanent fixture up top. Papin would score once more in the league all season, against Piacenza in January.
Despite his domestic frustrations, Papin’s record in Europe was still impressive, scoring four times in six games and providing two assists. Still, he didn’t feature once in 1994 – including the 4-0 demolition of Barcelona in the final, thanks to Capello’s rotation. The Frenchman had hardly kicked a ball in an entire calendar year. Indeed, a month before Paolo Maldini raised the Champions League trophy in Athens, Papin had already agreed to sign for Bayern Munich. Fed up with being Capello’s odd foreigner out, and having just hit 30, he knew he couldn’t waste any more time on the sideline.
Papin’s biggest obstacle in Milan was the foreigner rule and it was the principal reason he never made his mark on the Italian game. Spending so much time on the fringes of the squad can’t have been an easy pill to swallow for one of Europe’s leading marksmen, brought in for a record transfer fee.
And yet the Frenchman kept his counsel and never significantly fell out with Capello or the club hierarchy – aware perhaps of the reality of playing for Europe’s top club side. Perhaps that’s why he’s still fondly remembered by Rossoneri fans. One particularly special ‘Papinades’ moment is still recalled on the curva, a spectacular long-range volley against Porto in the Champions League group stage during his first year in Milan. It was classic Papin. One wonders just how many more of these we might’ve seen had he only been given more opportunities.