Fabien Barthez speaks ahead of the Blancpaine endurance racing tour, round 2.

World Cup winner to motorsport’s pinnacle: The batsh*t crazy racing career of Fabien Barthez

Fabien Barthez was – and probably still is – a nutter of the highest order. The French goalkeeper was giving fans heart palpitations long before it was cool.

Yer’ dad hated it. And that’s exactly how you know he was onto something. A trailblazer, Barthez was a goalkeeper way ahead of his time.

Revisionism is a wonderful thing in the age of social media, but there is a strong case to be made that the eccentric bald Frenchman would be a goalkeeper that would command a nauseatingly high transfer fee if he was playing today.

Or not. Because he’d probably have too much of an itch to do something silly in his off-season like test drive the fastest motorsport car he could possibly blag his way into.

That’s essentially the route he took after hanging up the gloves in 2007, except it got him hilariously far. Further than any football fan would’ve ever imagined.

Having put together a truly exceptional footballing CV, which included winning the 1998 World Cup with France on home soil, winning the Champions League with Marseille, two Premier Leagues with United and countless individual honours, Barthez’s legacy was set in stone by 2007.

He needed to prove nothing. Everyone knew what he was about. Being absolutely imperious at his best, and a complete liability at his worst.

Quite often, those two opposite ends of the spectrum would tangle with each other. Too often, in Manchester, which is why he wasn’t able to sustain his position as number one.

We say number one, we mean number 16 because that’s the number the Frenchman insisted on wearing.

One of the many quirks that made Barthez stick out from the rest, along with his stunning technical ability, gung-ho approach to every loose ball, and magnificent bald head.

Not needing to prove anything wasn’t enough for him, though. A man fascinated by motorsport for much of his football career, it took Barthez just a year to swap goalkeeper gloves for racing gloves, and his trademark short-sleeve shirt for overalls.

Anyone with their finger on the pulse, though, would’ve half expected the move. Not just because he was a bit of a lunatic, but because Barthez had expressed his interest in motorsport as early as 1998.

Speaking to former France international and once colleague Bixente Lizarazu for a 2018 documentary called Brothers of Sport, Barthez recalled memories of a conversation with French former racing driver Olivier Panis: “I spoke to Olivier during the summer. I asked him if I was a World Cup-winning footballer.”

In some disbelief about his football career at the time and fascinated by racing, Barthez continued: “It all happened so quickly. We had no time to really live in the present. I was asking myself, ‘What just happened?'”.

Panis, a 10-year Formula One veteran whose only win came at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, would later end up working directly alongside Barthez in motorsport all those years later, when the pair formed Panis-Barthez Competition – a French racing team that competed in GT and endurance classifications including the European Le Mans Series and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

He had to earn his stripes, though, did Fabien. It wasn’t as simple as retiring and ringing up an old acquaintance. He did it the proper way. The way only he could.

Barthez steps out of his car at Spa Francochamps.

Barthez at the 2019 Blancpain Endurance Series championship 24 Hours of Spa.

In 2008, he began competing at the Porche Carrera Cup France and continued to increase the mileage across different competitions. He’d continue to find his feet in sports car racing, competing in the French GT Championship and eventually picking up his first podium at the FFSA GT Championship in 2010.

That was it, then. There was no stopping the man. Swapping the bald head for a racing helmet, Barthez continued to put in the laps. By 2012, he’d finally won his first FFSA race, and a year later, he was lifting championships again – in his new sport.

Barthez, driving a Ferrari, won the 2013 French GT Championship alongside Morgan Moullin-Traffort. That should’ve been the culmination of a magnificent post-playing career – but it wasn’t.

Not satisfied with his body of work, he kept going. And he didn’t stay in his own lane, either. Pun absolutely intended.

In 2014, Barthez would embark on probably his biggest challenge yet; the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For any non-motorsport fans, that is exactly what it says on the tin. A 24-hour long race, in specially crafted cars, which is the ultimate test of endurance, driving ability, and cojones.

It would prove to be the first of three times he’d take part in the race, the two further entries coming in 2016 and 2017 as a part of his very own Panis-Barthez Competition.

For a man that achieved everything one could want to achieve in football, Barthez went above and beyond, confirming his place in the history books as an elite sportsperson, an incredibly talented and charismatic human, and above all, an absolute lunatic.

By Mitchell Wilks

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