In 1980, 23-year-old Jean-Francois Larios had the footballing world at his feet. Voted France Football’s Player of the Year, he would go on to win the Le Championnat with St-Etienne the following season and set off for the 1982 World Cup in Spain an important member of Les Bleus squad, with 15 caps and 5 international goals already to his credit.
With good looks and long, dark-flowing hair, Larios could almost have been considered fore-runner to the style invoked by David Ginola years later. And many in France believed he could’ve been better than the maestro Michel Platini himself, the most celebrated French-born player in history.
Yet within a year of winning his last French cap v Poland in the World Cup’s 3rd/4th Place Play-off match, a day prior to Italy’s defeat of West Germany in the final, Larios was on his way to Montreal to join-up with the Manic.
So much controversy surrounded the Algerian-born midfielder’s career, it’s hard to select a defining moment, however two episodes between 1980 and 1983 probably led to his ultimate downfall.
Larios had already won two French titles with St-Etienne and played in a UEFA Cup Final while on-loan to Bastia, before returning to St-Etienne, where he linked up again with Johnny Rep, his former Bastia side-kick, and the great Platini.
St-Etienne finished third but would have won the French title in 1979 had three points for a win not still been a future concept. But the foundation was laid.
Larios was the deep-lying springboard from which Platini and Rep derived their license to roam in search of goals. Another third place finish was secured the following season, before Championship glory followed in 1981. What could possibly go wrong?
The cracks however had already begun to appear. Larios and Christelle, Platini’s wife, fell in love.
And while St-Etienne for some time managed to hold things together publicly, there was underlying turbulence, as the once close friends understandably appeared at opposite ends of an ever-widening rift.
The rumours persisted and the feud deepened, as Les Verts’ domestic double attempt fell agonizingly short. Of perhaps greater concern was the World Cup in Spain where both men were expected to play key roles for Les Bleus.
Larios takes up the story in an interview he gave to French journalist Bertrand Metayer on the occasion of the release of his autobiography, I Played With Fire in November 2017...
“This is the story of Adam and Eve, the original fault. But it was love at first sight, a true love story. We thought we were well hidden but unfortunately it was rumored ...
“With him [Platini], we no longer spoke. Not even a hello. But we continued to play together. When you have a contract, you shut your mouth. We were in the middle of the championship, there was the World Cup coming ... in January 1982, I went to see coach Michel Hidalgo to explain the situation to him. I suggest to him that for the good of the team, I will pretend an injury and not go to the World Cup. He refused.
“But I had become a third card. It was he (Platini) who decided who played or not in the France team. I knew it, I took my responsibilities. It would have been different if he had been an average player.
“There are things like these that have happened in other clubs and it has not come out. A woman who leaves with her husband’s best friend sometimes happens in life.
“Finally, she said goodbye to me on the phone, she chose not to stay with me. I had to accept it.
“[With Platini], we only saw each other again in 2001 on a beach in Mauritius. I was jogging and getting her out of the water. He just took his head in his hands when he saw me, but we didn’t have a word.”
Both players started France’s opening match in Bilbao, a 1-3 defeat to England in which opposition captain Bryan Robson set a new record for the tournament’s fastest-ever goal.
Popular legend has it that Platini gave Hidalgo an ultimatum after the game. “Him... or Me!” Another suggestion was that Larios sacrificed himself for the good of the squad. Either way, he left for Barcelona to undergo transfer negotiations, eventually returning to re-join the squad, but played in only one more match, that 3rd/4th Play-off game, which perhaps tellingly, Michel Platini did not.
The second episode which hampered Larios was much less complex, although again he landed in hot water. Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona and Real Madrid were all on his case, but St-Etienne kept the Spanish clubs’ interest away from the player and refused to let him join Tottenham.
But Les Verts were soon plunged into crisis having been found guilty of making player payments through slush funds in 1983, Larios finding himself sanctioned for receiving wages in cash.
His big money move to La Liga, in an era when French players generally didn’t try their luck abroad, finally materialized. Madrid was the destination, but to Atletico and not Real. It was there he suffered the serious knee injury in training that plagued the rest of his spiralling career.
Larios insisted on being treated in France against Atletico’s wishes, and a row between player and club ensued. Without ever making an appearance for Atletico a deal was apparently struck for Larios to join Neuchatel Xamax in Switzerland the following season (although this is disputed since another version of events cited by La Presse suggest Montreal Manic bought the player’s Saint-Etienne contract, for a sum of $150,000, and offered the player a salary estimated at $100,000 for a period of five months).
But despite regaining fitness, Atletico refused to field Larios for the rest of the season, and he opted for a short spell with the Manic.
The knee injury kept him out of all but 6 of the 15 matches played by the Manic during his tenure, in which he scored once and added two assists.
An interesting aside came from English international midfielder Steve Hodge who faced Larios and the Impact, while playing in a friendly for his club side Nottingham Forest at Stade Olympique. Hodge wrote in his biography...
“... but back then we still had a trip to Canada before our season was over. We faced Manic de Montreal, who had the ex-French international Jean-Francois Larios playing for them.
“He was the only player in my whole career who spat in my face. I was defending a corner and had no idea what was coming as he rolled his lips and spat in the middle of my forehead. As it ran down my nose I was in shock.
“It was an end of season friendly, there was no need.
“I scored twice that day including the winner from a rare long-range effort, but Larios is my abiding memory from that game - it was disgusting.”
Larios departed Montreal before his 5 months were up, probably because he feared playing on synthetic surfaces risking further damage to his troublesome knee, with a new contract already lined up in Switzerland.
The rest of Larios’ playing career was uneventful. After Switzerland he returned to France playing for Lyon (in Ligue 2), Strasbourg, Nice and Montpellier before hanging up his boots in 1988.
As a player agent, Larios had involvement with the likes of current Impact boss Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka, but again fell foul of authority, the Marseille Criminal Court issuing a two-year suspended sentence, 200,000 euros fine and banning him from acting as a player agent for five years as part of the OM fraudulent transfer scandal in 2007.
His 2017 biography reveals tales of taking amphetamines “only on great occasions to be on a par with the Dutch or the Germans”, gambling, sex, alcohol and drugs (“I tore myself apart with alcohol and drugs”).
(Personally I’ve not had the pleasure yet, but it seems like an intriguing read - Author).
The events in the early-80’s life of Jean-Francois Larios makes you wonder about one match in particular. That epic World Cup semi-final in Seville between France and West Germany which ended 3-3 after extra time, the Germans prevailing on penalties.
France had established a two-goal lead in extra time, and you wonder had Larios been named even on the bench, would Hidalgo have introduced him to shore up the midfield. Would it have sewn up the game for France? We’ll never know of course, but chances are the introduction of a fresh Larios would have carried France over the line.
It’s all a case of what might have been not only for Les Bleus, but also for the man from Sidi-Bel-Abbes. A first-half career in complete contrast to the fall from grace experienced in the second, much of it arguably brought upon himself through a self-destructive streak and a less than generous dose of misfortune.
Everyone is familiar with the name Michel Platini, but not so that of Jean-Francois Larios, at least not outside his home country. For France’s forgotten football genius many observers from his era believe it should never have been so.