x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Sebastien Frey: a diver with a difference

Marcotti's Man From his hair to his career to diving in a near-empty pool, the keeper does things his way. And he doesn't care if he never plays for France again.

Sebastien Frey is happy playing for Fiorentina.
Sebastien Frey is happy playing for Fiorentina.

When your future has been laid out for you, both by bloodlines and genetics, you want to do something to break the mould, even if it is just superficial. For Sebastian Frey, this has meant being just that little bit different, whether it be his variety of hairstyles - from platinum blond to yellow dreadlocks to his current shaggy mane - or diving into a nearly empty swimming pool. "Well, there was some water in it, just not enough ... it felt great while I was in the air, very liberating. It felt less good when I landed," he later recalled about the self-inflicted broken clavicle which kept him out of action for a month.

Frey's grandfather, Andre, was a French international defender. His father, Nicolas, had a long career as a goalkeeper in the French second division. There was little question that he would play football, he was just that good. But having a dad who knows the world of football inside and out can be a double-edged sword: even as France's big clubs queued up to court him from the age of 13, Frey's father insisted that his son should stay at little Cannes.

"Let's wait until the really big fish come calling," he would say. Which is pretty much what happened in June of 1998. Frey had just completed his first full season as a professional, keeping goal at the age of 17 in the French second tier. Germany were staying nearby for the 1998 World Cup in France and their manager, Berti Vogts, needed an unofficial warm up game. And so the mayor of nearby Nice put together a side of local teenagers, with Frey between the posts.

The youngster was outstanding as the teenagers lost to Germany by the narrowest of margins, 2-1. Within a week, Inter Milan - the "really big fish" his dad was waiting for - had signed him. The plan was for him to back up Gianluca Pagliuca, a veteran Italian international, but it soon became apparent that Frey's exuberance and athleticism were going to be tough to keep under wraps. He made a nine appearances that first season, quickly becoming a cult hero among supporters.

With the aging Pagliuca on his way out, many called on coach Marcello Lippi, who took over that season, to take a leap of faith and make Frey the starter. Instead, the future World Cup winner took the "safe" option: he signed Angelo Peruzzi from Juventus and loaned Frey to Verona. Frey responded with a monster campaign, which saw him named joint-goalkeeper of the year (ironically with Peruzzi). Inter called him back, sold Peruzzi, and made the youngster their starter. Alas, the 2000-01 season would quickly turn into a nightmare for the club. Lippi was sacked after just one game, the new boss, Marco Tardelli, had rows with everyone and Inter finished fifth, 24 points off the top.

Frey, despite not having a poor season, became something of a scapegoat (not least because of incidents like the dive in the swimming pool, which brought more accusations of immaturity). Hector Cuper arrived from Valencia and, again, the new boss wanted his own man in goal. In came Francesco Toldo, another Italian international. Frey, still just 21, was sold to Parma, where he replaced Gigi Buffon, who had gone to Juventus.

He spent four years at Parma, witnessing the club's transition from big spenders to near bankruptcy. Seemingly every season, the club sold their talent. From Buffon and Lilian Thuram to Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Di Vaio to Stephen Appiah and Adrian Mutu. Frey knew he was on a sinking ship, but he did not care. He swore he would be the last to leave but Parma had other plans. By the summer of 2005, it became clear the club - caught up in the parent company, Parmalat's, accounting scandal - would go out of business.

Frey was asked to take a pay cut and move to Fiorentina, "for the good of the club". It was a chance to meet up again with Claudio Prandelli, who had coached him at Verona and at Parma. He quickly became one of the symbols of "La Viola", gaining the vice-captaincy. They finished fourth, but were stripped of a Champions' League spot (and penalised heavily the following season) as a result of the Calciopoli scandal, in which match officials were found to have favoured certain teams.

No matter. After a transition year (which saw Frey concede the fewest goals in Serie A), Fiorentina roared back in 2007-08, reaching the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup and qualifying for the Champions' League. They repeated the feat the following season, keeping AC Milan out of the top four and Frey, again, played a key role, along with the striker Alberto Gilardino. Regrets? Well, the big one is that much of his career has coincided with Raymond Domenech's time in charge of the France national team.

There is a natural antipathy between the two - Frey never appreciated the fact that Domenech called him up seven times before finally giving him some playing time - which explains why he has just two caps. "But I don't care anymore," said Frey, whose team go into the second leg of their Champions League knockout tie with Bayern Munich with a one-goal deficit later this month. "I really don't. Fiorentina are my national team now."

sports@thenational.ae Lazio v Fiorentina, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1