Marcel Desailly talks success

In an excerpt from this month's upcoming FinanceAsia magazine, legendary French footballer Marcel Desailly reflects on what success means.

The Oxford English dictionary definition of success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. That makes it sound so simple. And yet if you ask yourself the question, you may not find it so easy to answer. Perhaps because our aims are often myriad and our sense of purpose often vague, we may feel we haven’t achieved success, even when onlookers assume otherwise. But in a time of continued economic uncertainty, it is perhaps more imperative than ever to self-reflect.

We decided to kick off the analysis by asking for the views of five professionals who most people would say have achieved success. We talked to world-class footballer Marcel Desailly for his definition, recognising that in the world of sport it seems every spectator has a strong view inevitably expressed loudly in a pub. Sticking to our industry knitting, we turned to Stephen Bird, CEO of Citi Asia-Pacific, for his definition as well. For a corporate leader’s perspective, we talked to Gene Yoon, who runs Fila and recently took over Acushnet, which owns Titleist and FootJoy.

Desailly is considered one of the most accomplished football players ever. He is a retired Ghanaian-born French footballer who led his nation to win the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, and was the first player to win the Uefa Champions League in consecutive seasons with different clubs, to name just a few of his achievements. In June, 2011 he opened a sports and health facility in Ghana geared to young players as well as pros. He also serves as an ambassador for Barclays, the sponsor of England’s Barclays Premier League. As a result, he travels to meet fans and clients around the world, including at last year’s Barclays Asia Trophy, which took place in Hong Kong.

Marcel Desailly, during his time at English Premier League club Chelsea

“Footballers are unlike business people. Footballers belong to the people. We tend to come from the lower and middle class (though I came from an upper-middle class background to be honest, as my [adoptive] father was a diplomat for the consulate of Ghana). So we are different, as we think we are lucky to be where we are and we have to share our success. Businessmen don’t typically think they are lucky. We work just as hard. We sacrifice our adolescence to take a risk to go into the sport, and it’s our hard work that gets us to where we get, but we never do it alone and never think we do it alone. We know it’s about teamwork.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking of some professional footballers who bask in the limelight and appear to take all the credit for everything the team does. But few of those players succeed in the long term. What they gain is not success; it is fame. But follow them after a few years and you’ll see them playing for a smaller team or find that they have burnt through the money.

For us, if you think about the money, if you think about the most recent win, you don’t last. Victory spurs you further, for sure. But it’s just fuel. Champions who last, really last, most of the time, these are people who are capable of constantly working hard and working together. Champions understand it’s the team they must be committed to — it’s not about one person, and it’s not about the money.

Of course, when you negotiate your contract you push it as high as possible. You don’t say: ‘I’m doing this because of passion.’ You negotiate your best, but you won’t succeed if you don’t have dedication, and you won’t have dedication if you don’t have passion for what you’re doing. So that’s what I mean when I say it’s not just for the money.

I retired when I started thinking about the contract. I went to Qatar in 2004 — I was done in Europe, the younger guys were better than me at this point. But I wasn’t ready to accept sitting on the bench, I still wanted to play. So I said, let me see what’s available abroad. The US and Japan weren’t ready. The Emirates were ready. Yes, the money was there but for me it was because I still wanted to play. But after a year and a half, going to training started to become difficult. I was finding it wasn’t fun. I started to say I am going to training because I have a contract. But I found myself thinking when the prayers were called in the morning: ‘Oh no, I have to get up and go to training.’ And I didn’t want to go. That’s when I knew it was time to quit. I knew that if I wasn’t playing for the football, I was done. You’re no longer successful if you’re not doing it for the right reasons.

I connect success straight away to hard work, but also to vision. Every successful man I can think of was always a step ahead of everyone else and worked hard. I’ve developed a sports facility connected to the state that is a full-health complex: a gym, a spa, a chiropractic office, a dentist in one place — this is completely new in Ghana. This is a successful project because it’s about hard work from people putting things together that have never been done in Ghana, or in West Africa, before — it might be normal in the US or Europe, but it’s new for Ghana.

To succeed you have to have your mind boiling every moment, churning away and thinking: what is next, what is next? You have to work hard. You have to share your success.

You ask, which felt better, winning for my team or for my nation — they are just two different feelings. You feel much more responsible and at the same time the victory is much more complete when you succeed for your nation. There’s something special about it; quite unique.

Let’s talk about France in 1998 when we won the World Cup; it was all about how football gave the people of France a sense of national identity and reason to be proud. For months, no I’d say a year afterwards, there was still a very positive feeling throughout the nation, not just in sports. Politicians, workers, everyone — held their heads high and they were happy and it was felt throughout the economy. This sense of being special, of winning, gave everyone extra oomph. That was success.”


To read the rest of this article, check out the February issue of FinanceAsia magazine, which hits desks this week.

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