With former MetroStars/Red Bulls midfielder-forward Youri Djorkaeff, the CEO of the FIFA Foundation, in the news with his organization planning a fundraiser for the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reposting a three-part series about the French World Cup champion that was originally published at BigAppleSoccer.com in 2006.
First in a three-part series
By Michael Lewis
Youri Djorkaeff was born to be a soccer player.
He grew up in a soccer environment in his native France. His father, Jean, was a professional player who performed for three pro clubs and in the 1966 World Cup. He also captained the team.
But it wasn’t just his father’s influence that began to mold him into the player of the World Cup championships side he became in 1998.
“It’s a huge story, my father’s story,” Djorkaeff said. “But to be honest, I started to follow my brother. My oldest brother started playing soccer and you know, you always want to be with your oldest brother.”
So, Djorkaeff followed older brother Denis, who was three years older. Denis has been Youri’s agent.
“When he was with his friends, I always wanted to follow him and be like him,” he said.
Despite his father’s notoriety, Djorkaeff said he was never pushed into becoming a player.
“He gave me a chance to follow my way,” he said.
Djorkaeff became interested in the sport when he was eight-years-old after the family moved back to Lyon from Paris.
“It was not really my goal to become a professional,” he said.
But the idea of making a living and playing in the World Cup, slowly, but surely grew on the son of an Armenian mother and Kalmyk father. The Kalmyks are descendants of the Oirates of the West Mongolian people (they have lived in Russian for almost 400 years).
The young Youri started playing three years up with his brother’s 11-year-old team.
The progression was a natural one. Djorkaeff first trained with the team. Then he was given an opportunity to play in a game and wound up as one of the starting 11.
The soccer bug really hit him at around 14.
“I decided really to be a professional because in France we have an academy where a big club picks you and trains and teaches you,” he said. “You go to school, but train to be a professional.”
Djorkaeff tried other sports, such as volleyball.
“I was starting to have pleasure in sports,” he said. “I tried individual sports, but the most pleasure I had was in collective sports. I was starting to think about a real collective sport and soccer was just at my window, in front of my nose.”
His soccer hero? Johan Cruyff. Remember, Djorkaeff was born in 1968 – March 9, to be exact — and watched Cruyff in his prime on television.
“He was the man who had all the qualities of a soccer player,” he said. “Running, leading, fighting, scoring, giving passes, defending. He was everywhere on the field. A great one.”
At 15, he made up his mind. Djorkaeff was ready for a pro career. He left home to play with Grenoble of the Second Division, not far from Lyon.
“I can tell you something,” Djorkaeff said. “You can’t be in that division. You have to very strong because every game was a battle. It was very great for my growth because it was not really easy. It was not the kind of soccer you can watch on TV in the First Division in France. It was more tackling, more physical than technical.”
Still . . .
“It was a very good school,” he added. “You can learn a lot from that.”
The learning wasn’t about skill as it was about getting good survival instincts.
“There is a big difference [from] MLS,” Djorkaeff said. “In MLS, if you finish last, you still are in the First Division. There are no changes. The next year you pick some better players.
“In France, you know at the beginning of the season you have to fight to stay in the First Division. This is totally different. You learn to fight for survival to go from the Second to First Division. It’s part of being professional. . . . With this experience, you can get better.”
He certainly did get better.
Djorkaeff scored 23 goals in 82 appearances in Grenoble from 1984-86. He went to Strasbourg and found the back of the net 25 times in 35 matches. AS Monaco knocked on Djorkaeff’s door and he answered with 65 goals in 177 games from 1991-1995 in some pressure-packed matches. He led Ligue 1 in goals with 20 in 1994.
He eventually went on to play for Paris St-German (17 goals in 43 appearances), Inter Milan (32 in 101), Kaiserslautern (17 in 67), Bolton Wanderers (20 in 75) and Blackburn Rovers (none in three) before joining the MetroStars for the 2005 season. He won the European Cup Winners Cup with Paris S-G in 1996 and the UEFA Cup with Inter in 1998.
During his time with Monaco, Djorkaeff got noticed by the National Team. He eventually made his international debut at the ripe old age of 25, which is quite a late national team start for a European.
Before Djorkaeff became a world champion, his first international appearance came in one of the most forgettable French national team matches of all time.
Next: The World Cup, successes and failures
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