Supporters love the Frenchman for his warrior mentality but also for his artistry, blue-collar work ethic and defensive devotion
Uli Hoeness has told the story quite often over the past four years but the Bayern Munich president's deep sense of contentment has grown only stronger with each gleeful repetition. The Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, was on the line, flanked by an assistant and translator. The Spaniard wanted to make Franck Ribéry his marquee signing at the start of his second spell in charge at the Bernabéu in the summer of 2009. "Do you have a pen and a piece of paper?" Hoeness asked. "OK. Then write down a one and eight zeros."
The conversation did not get much further, as Pérez bridled at the €100m asking price. To ram home the point, Hoeness compared the French midfielder to the most expensive street on the Monopoly board. "Two years ago we bought Schlossallee [the German equivalent of Mayfair] and built four hotels on it," he explained. "If others land on it, it's very expensive. And you only sell Schlossallee if you're in dire straits or bankrupt."
Hoeness's proud intransigence – "we don't fold the moment somebody waves big wads of cash around," he told Bild later – was mostly meant to convey a back-off message to other, wealthier European clubs. But it has since turned out to have been one of the most important episodes in the Bavarian club's history, comparable to that fateful day in spring 1964, when the Bayern supremo Walter Fembeck arrived one hour before a delegation from their local rivals Munich 1860 at Gerd Müller's house to secure the striker's signature.
A few weeks before the phone call from Pérez Bayern had been humiliated 4-0 by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final. Ribéry, bought for €25m from Marseille in 2007, seemed wasted on the Bundesliga and his team – a budding superstar stuck with a flat-track bully. Craving international recognition, the winger from Boulogne-sur-Mer had welcomed an earlier inquiry from Manchester United.
He will not be too far from Old Trafford on Wednesday, when Bayern visit the Etihad to play City. But though United's interest came to naught, a difficult relationship with the new Bayern coach, Louis van Gaal, who abhorred the Frenchman's lack of tactical discipline, added to his restlessness. Yet within a year of Hoeness's refusal to cash in on his prize asset, Ribéry's relentless energy – alongside the even more egotistical brilliance of Arjen Robben – had propelled the German club to their first Champions League final in nine years. Ribéry was banned for the 2-0 final defeat by José Mourinho's Internazionale after his dismissal for a hot-headed foul on Lisandro López of Lyon but the double-winning season marked the beginning of Bayern's re-emergence as a European superpower, as well as a profound change of heart in the player.
Unwavering support from the club in the wake of allegations about sex with a teenage prostitute (and a rumoured €14m salary) made him extend his contract until 2015. "Isch 'abe gemacht fünf Jahre mehr" – I have made five years more, Kaiser Franck proclaimed in his droll, heavily accented German.
His decision – and that of Hoeness, who had backed the player in his dispute with the soon-to-be departed Van Gaal – was vindicated when Bayern reached two more Champions League finals, the second of which ended with the European Cup in Ribéry's bed. "I slept with the trophy and my wife," the 30-year-old grinned after Bayern's triumphant return from the 2-1 win over Dortmund at Wembley in May.
His "best ever season", according to Ribéry, also led to him winning Uefa's award for the best player in Europe in August, the first international recognition of a Bayern Munich player since Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, now chairman of the executive board at the club, was honoured with the Ballon d'Or in 1980 and 1981.
The decision raised some eyebrows. Compared with the freakishly prolific Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, his stats for 2012-13 – 11 goals, 22 assists – look ordinary. His game – a combination of close control, dribbling, acceleration – is neither as easy on the eye nor as efficient as that of other prominent wingers.
The 53 football journalists casting their vote recognised, however, that Ribéry exemplified the secret of the team's success: a unique combination of artistry, blue-collar work ethic and defensive devotion. No one toiled as hard as Ribéry in the key semi-final wins against Barcelona (7-0 on aggregate), say, where he spent most of the match playing close to the left-back David Alaba, only to break with lightning speed when Bayern won back possession.
"He was world-class before but he's made another step forward," said his team-mate Bastian Schweinsteiger recently. "I often tell him that [right-back] Philipp Lahm is expected to make a tackle at the back but, if you win the ball in defence, people will applaud."
And applaud they have. Ribéry has been popular for his childish pranks and warrior mentality from the start but over the past season, when Jupp Heynckes turned him into a more rounded player, he has assumed the position of genuine folk hero. "Ribéry, Ribéry," they shout at the Allianz Arena. Lahm and Schweinsteiger, the two nice, Bavarian middle-class boys at the heart of the dressing room, are revered by the supporters but Ribéry – dubbed "the anarchist" by Süddeutsche Zeitung – is positively adored.
Tellingly there was hardly a reaction at all when it was revealed that he had punched Robben in the face in the dressing room at half-time during Bayern's semi-final defeat of Real Madrid in 2012. The Dutchman probably had it coming, the unspoken assumption went.
Even in his native France, where many belittle his northern accent and have never quite forgiven him for his role in the 2010 World Cup disaster when sections of the team threatened to go on strike, there are signs that the mood is slowly shifting in his favour. "We must stop to think that footballers are super-humans," the French PR svengali Jacques Séguéla told France Football last week. "Ribéry is somebody who slips up, that's why I'm a fan. He's the anti-handsome, the anti-Cristiano Ronaldo. And the anti-Messi – not colourless, odourless and tasteless."
The Bayern faithful would agree. They revel in Ribéry's barely controlled aggression that has carried over into adult life after a particularly difficult childhood in Boulogne, a tough port city. He was thrown through a windscreen in a car crash as a two-year-old and grew up getting constantly heckled by other kids because of his appearance. In his defence he lashed out. He was expelled from a football academy as a teenager after breaking a girl's arm.
At 20 years of age, when Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were already established names, Ribéry was still working with his father, François, on a construction site, unsure if he would ever make it as a professional footballer. His real breakthrough came only as a Marseille player in 2006, when he excelled at the World Cup for France after a last-minute call-up. "The scars in my face are the source of my strength," he said a few years ago.
While it has taken some time for Guardiola's tactical changes to take hold this season, Ribéry has barely missed a beat. His four goals in eight games and all-round strong performances have helped smooth the path for the Pep revolution. "Like Gerd Müller and his goals in the 70s, Ribéry has become irreplaceable as Bayern's flywheel," wrote Munich's Abendzeitung. "I feel as if I could stay here for the rest of my life, I'm so happy," he said after extending his contract until 2017 in May.
Hoeness may have been overstating the case a little bit with his Schlossallee speech in 2009 – Pérez, a construction magnate, would have known that Monopoly rules allow for only two hotels per street – but, if anything, Ribéry has been even more valuable. Buying and keeping him gave the club belief that they could belong to the European elite again – and the Frenchman has proved them right.