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IT'S HARD NOT TO NOTICE THE SCARS. THERE'S ONE ACROSS HIS FOREHEAD; BUT MORE PROMINENT IS THE ONE ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HIS FACE, WHICH RUNS FROM HIS JAW TO AN INCH OR SO ABOVE HIS EAR. BECAUSE OF THAT one, Franck Ribéry can't grow hair on his right temple, so he looks perpetually like a man whose barber was summoned away on urgent business mid-crewcut.
Ribéry got the scars in a car accident when he was two. He was thrown from the backseat into the windshield. "I was too young to count the stitches they put in my face, but I think it came to hundreds," he said. Between the scars and the bald patch and a set of teeth that an Australian newspaper described as "worthy of a 19th century French peasant," Ribéry has long been teased about his looks. As a kid he was called Quasimodo and Frankenstein and Scarface—and opposing soccer fans can be a whole lot tougher than playground bullies. But during the 2006 World Cup, Ribéry professed contentment with his appearance. "So here I am," he said. "This is my face, it is the one people know me by. I am happy with my face. Why shouldn't I be happy?"
Really, why shouldn't he be? Since making his international debut as a 23-year-old just two weeks before the '06 Cup, Ribéry has been a midfield mainstay for France. When Zinédine Zidane's career came to an inglorious end with his head butt in the final in Berlin, it was Ribéry who succeeded him as the heart of Les Bleus. (Zizou himself called Ribéry "the jewel of French football.")
Ribéry's was an unlikely ascension. When he was 16 he was booted from the Lille youth academy for having poor study habits and a volatile temper. One early coach said, "You had to watch him like a pan of milk on the boil. He was a kid who had grown up in the street." Indeed, more than one writer has likened the 5' 7", 135-pound Ribéry to a street urchin, flitting about the pitch, pilfering the ball and leaving his pursuers grasping at air.
It was that slipperiness—combined with a keen eye and a deft finishing touch—that gradually carried him up through the lower levels of French soccer. He made a brief stop in Turkey before latching on with Marseille in 2005. His first cap came in '06, in Zidane's 100th game. Instead of hailing the aging star's landmark, the 80,000 fans in Paris were more interested in chanting for Ribéry, who started the game on the bench. Eventually coach Raymond Domenech gave in and inserted Ribéry for the last 15 minutes.
In addition to guiding France to South Africa—his goals in back-to-back 1-0 wins over Lithuania put Les Bleus on the path to qualification after a shaky start—Ribéry has also thrived in club soccer. He moved to Bayern Munich in 2007 and led it to the Bundesliga title in his first season and into contention again this season.
Of course, along the way he's put up with plenty of abuse from the terraces and the press. But that's not the kind of thing that bothers Ribéry, who is both deeply spiritual (he converted to Islam after marrying his childhood sweetheart, who was born in Morocco, in 2002) and devilishly subversive. No teammate, it seems, is safe from Franck's pranks. He's left mustard in their shoes and dumped buckets of water on them from the roof of the team's headquarters. His pièce de résistance, though, came in January 2009, when Bayern was training in Dubai. Ribéry commandeered the team bus and, to the delight and horror of his passengers, wheeled it around the parking lot of the hotel, jumping the curb and taking out a few signs in the process. "If I am not having any fun," he explained, "then I cannot play football either."