Barthez leaves soccer behind for a new life

Paris, October 6:

A little fun went out of France’s goal when Fabien Barthez retired. The shining bald head, the owl-like eyes, the manic grin — Barthez left his mark on world soccer as much for his eccentric manner as his undoubted agility.

A self-styled goalkeeper, Barthez rarely obeyed any soccer manual. He loved to dribble past opponents, fancying himself as a skilled outfield player — sometimes with disastrous consequences.

He tested the patience of fans and managers alike, but his commitment to teammates was never contested. Laurent Blanc, France’s defender from the 1998 World Cup team, once planted a kiss onto Barthez’s head after a spectacular save during that successful campaign. That kiss became a lasting reminder of Barthez.

Three months after helping France reach its second World Cup final, he announced his retirement on Thursday. “I am starting a new life,” he said. “I will continue to enjoy myself... but without soccer. Some goalkeepers continue until 37 or 38,” the 35-year-old Barthez added. “But I needed a human adventure, something like that.”

Barthez, who also helped Les Bleus win the 2000 European Championship, is not attached to a club and has not played since July 9, when the French lost a shootout to Italy in the World Cup final. Barthez had a decent World Cup, but his waning agility became evident in the final, when he failed to get near any of the five spot-kicks.

His concentration, too, had wobbled against Portugal in the semi-final, when he dealt with a free kick from Cristiano Ronaldo by palming the ball into the air like he was playing beach volleyball. The ball dropped invitingly to Luis Figo, who headed it over. He was perhaps as surprised as anybody.

Typically, Barthez grinned, as if it was merely a training ground mishap. Doing things his own way often meant he put his team at risk. Once, against Valencia, he ran past Kily Gonzalez at full speed while dribbling the ball, leaving the Valencia winger in his tracks. That time, it worked.

The same trick backfired in October 2001, when he attempted to bamboozle Diego Tristan of Deportivo La Coruna. But Barthez fell over, Tristan took the ball and rolled it into the empty net. A packed Old Trafford failed to see the funny side when Barthez and Manchester United lost 3-2, with Tristan grabbing a brace.

Red-faced, coach Alex Ferguson was already beginning to lose patience with Barthez. During the 2002-2003 Champions League, another Barthez blunder helped Ronaldo on the way to a hat-trick at Old Trafford. Ferguson had enough, and offload him to Marseille in January 2004. But there were memorable, sometimes stunning, saves, and Barthez was near faultless in France’s ’98 World Cup run, making a crucial save against Ronaldo in the final.

At Euro 2000, France and Portugal were 1-1 in extra time when Abel Xavier rose to meet a cross, and aimed a powerful header goalward. With barely a split second to react, Barthez threw himself upward and tipped the ball over the crossbar — prompting Xavier to hold his head in disbelief.

Barthez quit Marseille before this year’s World Cup and hoped his close friendship with Toulouse coach Elie Baup would facilitate a move back to his hometown club, but the team did not want to risk losing Nicolas Douchez.

“The only clubs where I wanted to go were not very pleased to see me,” Barthez said. Toulouse would have been perfect for me.”

Barthez said he was considering an offer to be a TV commentator at next year’s Rugby World Cup. “Why not? That would be interesting,” Barthez said.

From his international debut in a 1-0 loss to Australia in 1994, he played 87 times for France — including a national record 17 over three World Cups.

Barthez quit Man United after 139 appearances and two English Premier League titles. At Marseille, he played 180 league games and in 1993 he helped it become the only French team to win the European Cup. Barthez also played for Monaco, where he won French league titles in 1997 and 2000.

In May 2005, Barthez received a six-month ban for spitting on Moroccan referee Abdellah el-Achiri during a friendly between Marseille and Wydad Casablanca.

He explained his actions this way: “What happened is how things happen every day in the street. When you receive an insult, you crack. There was an insult. What’s done is done.”