Fabien Barthez: The Eccentric One

Fabien Barthez: The Eccentric One

Player Profile: Fabien Barthez

Date of Birth: 28/6/1971
Height: 1.80 m (5 ft 11 in)
Position: Goalkeeper
National Team: France
International Caps: 87

Club Career

Most great goalkeepers are remembered for their saves. Fabien Barthez’s highlight reel though will probably have as many of his eccentric moments as there are spectacular saves. The Frenchman was supremely talented and won nearly everything there is to win in football. But he had a particular knack for driving fans and managers crazy on a bad day.

Fabien Barthez was born in south-western France to a former rugby player. He never had the build of a goalkeeper, as at 5′ 11′, he was a little on the shorter side. But after making his debut for Toulouse in 1991, he quickly caught the attention of Marseille and signed the following year. Barthez’s timing was great as Marseille had a season to remember. They first won the French league and then triumphed over AC Milan in the Champions League final.

Barthez started that final alongside many future greats like Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps. He also became the youngest goalkeeper, up until that point, to win a Champions League/European Cup final. A record which was later overtaken by Iker Casillas in 2000.

Tragedy would soon strike Marseille though as a match-fixing scandal saw them stripped of the league title that they had won and relegated to the second division. While many of their top stars left for greener pastures, Barthez stayed behind to help his club through tough times. With him in goal, they soon bounced back to the first division.

In 1995, Barthez joined Monaco where he found a great deal of success, winning multiple titles. While at Les Rouges et Blancs he won the league twice, in 1996-97 and later in 1999-00.

Meanwhile, his exploits with France at the 1998 World Cup had caught the attention of Europe’s big guns. It was Manchester United who won the race for his signature breaking the British transfer record for a goalkeeper to bring him to Old Trafford.

Their manager Sir Alex Ferguson had been struggling to replace Danish custodian Peter Schmeichel, who had left the club after winning the Champions League in 1999. The season after had seen Ferguson unsuccessfully try out three goalkeepers – Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi and Raimond van der Gouw.

Barthez had a very good first full season at the club, lifting the EPL title as United let in fewer goals than anybody else in the league. But the eccentricities in his game was beginning to show and was to be greatly amplified the following season.

Barthez was always a goalkeeper who was good with his feet. In 2001, during a pre-season friendly, Ferguson even threw him on as a winger. But his go-hung style ensured that he was sometimes caught out and at a club like Manchester United, every mistake he made was amplified.

2001-02 was a horror season for both United and Barthez. The club finished third in the league, a full ten points behind winners Arsenal. With Barthez in goal for 32 league matches, United conceded 45 goals. He made mistakes that led to two goals against Deportivo in the Champions League and against Liverpool. One of his worst moments of the season came at Highbury when he passed the ball straight to opposing striker Thierry Henry, who easily slotted the ball into the net.

Barthez, while confident with the ball at his feet, liked taking opposing strikers on. Opposing Premier League teams took note and were beginning to press him more leading to more frequent mistakes.

Barthez failed to recover his form in his third season with the club and the writing looked to be on the wall. Ferguson, who had initially backed him, was beginning to lose patience. The final straw was United’s infamous Champions League quarter final against Real Madrid, when Brazilian striker Ronaldo scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford with fans and pundits feeling Barthez could have done more. That proved to be his final game in United colours as Roy Carrol replaced him for the rest of the season. The only silver lining for Barthez was that he left with another English Premier League winner’s medal around his neck.

United initially loaned out Barthez to Marseille during the 2003-04 season, but that loan was struck down by FIFA as it was outside the transfer window. This meant that Barthez had to wait until January 2004 to make his move. He later signed a two-and-a-half-year deal with the club.

But more problems awaited Barthez at Marseille as he was banned for six months for spitting at a referee in 2005. As his contract wound down, Barthez announced that he would be seeking a return to Toulouse to take care of his sick mother. But when the club showed no interest in bringing him on board, he announced his retirement.

This wasn’t quite the end for Barthez though. He announced a brief comeback with Nantes in December 2006, but that lasted only a few months and he hung up his boots for good shortly after.

International Career

Barthez is regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers in French history and only Hugo Lloris has made more appearances as a custodian than him for the national team.

He started in goal for France in three World Cups and was one of the heroes of their title-winning squad in 1998. One of the traditions of the French team in that tournament involved defender Laurent Blanc kissing Barthez’s shaved head before every match. He kept five clean sheets in the tournament and conceded only two goals. Justifiably, he won the Lev Yashin award for the best goalkeeper of the tournament.

He enhanced his reputation further with another spectacular show at Euro 2000. The goalkeeper and his teammates were again victorious and he returned from the tournament with a winners’ medal around his neck.

Barthez was the starting goalkeeper for France in their forgettable 2002 World Cup campaign, with his side making a disappointing first-round exit. He also started for the French national team at Euro 2004 where they made it to the quarter finals. Barthez was surprisingly selected as the number one in their 2006 World Cup squad. He impressed again in their run to the final, keeping four clean sheets, but was powerless to stop Italy from winning the final via shootout.

Where is Fabien Barthez now?

After calling time on his football career, Barthez made a surprise switch to motorsports. He first raced in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 2014. In 2016, he founded his own team – Panis Barthez Competition – and finished 12th at Le Mans. In December 2019, he announced that he would no longer be involved with the team.

He also made a brief appearance as a coach when his former teammate Laurent Blanc took over as a France manager.

Did you know? Interesting facts about Barthez

– At 5′ 11′ Barthez remains the shortest goalkeeper to win the Champions League.

– The £7.8 million that Manchester United paid for him was a British transfer record at that time.

– A superstitious man, Barthez wore red briefs during matches and sometimes cut off the sleeves of his jerseys.

– While goalkeepers usually wear the No. 1 shirt, Barthez wore No. 16 for France.