Welcome back to this SportsLumo special, where we chronicle the best of the best in international football. This is a 20-part series, so do stay tuned for content as and when we post it. We have previously covered England, Argentina and Brazil in this series. Today’s nation of focus is France.
Defending world champions France are up there as one of the top countries in the world of football. Les Bleus, as they are commonly known, are two-time FIFA World Cup winners and one-time UEFA European Championships winners. They also finished runners-up in 2016, two years before they won their second world title. But it isn’t just due to their winning international record that they are so popular internationally. No, that is also because France is a factory for footballing talent. Evidence of this can be seen even today; their domestic top-flight league, Ligue 1, has a reputation for developing young talent. This isn’t even just French talent either; many young players from around the world have got their professional football starts in France.
Thus, it was hard to pick out a starting XI of the nation’s all-time great players. Naturally some top talents of both the present and the past missed out on being named in this list.
With that in mind, let’s look at what we believe is the best-ever playing XI in the history of the France national team.
Goalkeeper: Hugo Lloris (Active from 2008-present, France caps: 129, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: made over 300 Premier League appearances for Tottenham Hotspur, Notable clubs: Olympique Lyonnais, Tottenham Hotspur)
This is a slightly controversial choice, as many would probably pick Fabien Barthez in this position. After all, the former Manchester United goalkeeper was in goal when France won the ’98 World Cup and Euros two years later. However, on an overall playing level, Lloris is the more solid of the two shot-stoppers.
Barthez was reliable between the sticks but had an error or two in him on a frequent basis. While his characterisation as something of a joke figure is inaccurate, he did have it in him to make costly mistakes. Lloris, by contrast, is as solid as they come. He also excels in organising his defence as well as overall distribution. His club career has lacked trophies but he led an exciting France side to a 2018 World Cup win, as well as the finals of Euro 2016.
Right-back: Lilian Thuram – (Active from 1991-2008, France caps: 142, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: most capped player in France history, Notable clubs: Monaco, Juventus, Barcelona)
Thuram was one of those defenders who could do it all. Equally proficient either at right-back or centre-back, he was as good going forward as he was defending the goal. His physical attributes stood out – he was dominant in the air and not easily bullied off the ball. Yet he was also a fair player. Unlike many defenders of his ilk, he never looked to foul attackers needlessly.
Thuram was part of the ‘Golden Generation’ of French footballers who won the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2000. Thuram would also be part of the French side that made the 2006 World Cup final. This is despite the fact that he retired from international football and had to be talked out of his decision.
After football, Thuram has focused a lot on speaking out on matters of public importance. In 2008, he created the Lilian Thuram Foundation for Education against racism. He has also authored four books, three of which are graphic novels.
Centre-back: Laurent Blanc – (Active from 1983-2003, France caps: 97, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: Won major domestic honours with 4 different clubs, Notable clubs: Montpellier, Barcelona, Marseille, Inter Milan, Manchester United)
Blanc played predominantly as a sweeper, although by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s the role was being phased out. Thus, he settled into a role as a ball-playing centre-back. But Blanc, who spent most of his club career at Montpellier, was a decent threat going forward as well. He scored a total of 125 club goals in his career. Aside from being an aerial threat, Blanc was also a good penalty taker.
Incidentally, his international career could have been over before it hit its biggest heights. He retired internationally in 1994 after copping criticism for France not making that year’s World Cup. But he changed his mind two years later. He would then go on to form the backbone of the French side that conquered the world and Europe in 1998 and 2000, respectively.
Interestingly, Blanc began his career playing as an attacking midfielder. He only started playing as a defender a few years after his professional debut, on the advice of Michel Mezy. As it turns out, ‘Le President’ excelled as a defender.
Centre-back: Marcel Desailly – (Active from 1986-2006, France caps: 116, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: won domestic trophies with four different sides, Notable clubs: Nantes, Marseille, AC Milan, Chelsea)
Desailly was Blanc’s central defensive partner during France’s golden run from 1998-2000. Originally born in Ghana before moving to France, Desailly too was best suited to a sweeper role. However, he did the bulk of his good work as a rock-solid defender; he was even nicknamed ‘The Rock’.
Desailly was also versatile; he could play in midfield or even as a full-back if required. However, the bulk of his success came as a centre-back. His ability to lead and organise a defence is legendary, as is his hard-working nature.
Besides his exploits with the French national team, he also won many trophies at club level. His most successful period came at AC Milan. There he won two leagues and a Champions League, besides the UEFA Super Cup and the Supercoppa Italia.
Left-back: Patrice Evra – (Active from 1998-2018, France caps: 81, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: won combined 20 domestic trophies at 3 clubs, Notable clubs: Monaco, Manchester United, Juventus, Marseille)
The fourth defensive member of France’s 1998-2000 golden generation, Bixente Lizarazu, misses out only due to Evra being as great as he was. Lizarazu was France’s left-back as they won the World Cup and European Championship. Unfortunately for him, Evra is easily one of the best-ever in that position.
Evra’s ability to be good in both attack and defence meant he was a sure-shot starter for club and country. His time at Manchester United was particularly noteworthy, as he won a plethora of trophies with the English giants. His time with the national team, however, was less straightforward.
He became public enemy number one after the chaos of the 2010 World Cup, which saw him – then the captain – lead a player strike after Nicholas Anelka was sent home. However, he would later go on to lead France to the final of Euro 2016. Indeed, he was at one point captain of both Manchester United and France, so highly regarded were his leadership skills.
Midfielder: Patrick Vieira – (Active from 1994-2011, France caps: 107, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: captained Arsenal to unbeaten Premier League season in 2004, Notable clubs: Arsenal, Inter Milan, Manchester City)
Vieira too was part of the 1998-2000 French Golden Generation. Although it’s perhaps worth noting he was mainly a squad player in 1998. Nevertheless, he was a regular two years later and would be a mainstay of the national side till his retirement.
Vieira’s specialty was that he could do it all. His box-to-box style meant he would pop up everywhere. He was equally adept at tackling and intercepting passes as he was at making neat passes and scoring goals too. It is why Arsenal found it so hard to replace him after his 2005 departure.
Nevertheless, he would go on to taste more success with Inter Milan before returning to England with Manchester City. He would get his coaching break at the side, managing the reserve team before moving to New York City FC, Nice and now Crystal Palace. No matter how his managerial career goes, Vieira’s playing career means he will forever remain a French legend.
Midfielder: Claude Makelele – (Active from 1991-2011, France caps: 71, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: revolutionised the defensive midfield role, Notable clubs: Marseille, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain)
A midfielder who perhaps wasn’t as appreciated in his time, Makelele now has a position named after him. The role of the defensive midfielder is now known as ‘The Makelele Role’, such was his impact on modern football.
Makelele proved the mantra that simplicity was genius. His role in his teams was simple: shield the defence and recycle possession neatly. Makelele did both, and with great effect. His no-frills style was, ironically, the reason he was sold by Real Madrid. His time at Chelsea thereafter proved how pivotal a player he was as he revolutionised the defensive midfield role.
He was under-appreciated even internationally, and at one point retired from the national team. But he came back in time for their run to the 2006 World Cup final. He would then retire for good from international football after Euro 2008.
Attacking midfielder: Zinedine Zidane – (Active from 1989-2006, France caps: 108, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: considered one of the greatest footballers in history, Notable clubs: Bordeaux, Juventus, Real Madrid)
A name modern football fans will be all too familiar with – and with good reason too. Zidane was neither pacy nor exuberantly flashy with his play. However, he had a technique that few could match. That, combined with excellent vision, passing and goal-scoring ability made him one of the most dangerous footballers in the world.
That’s not to say Zidane could not bust out the party tricks – far from it. His feints and turns left even the best of defenders flat on their bottoms. And his ability to single-handedly change a game was unmatched in his time.
His international career is best remembered for inspiring France to wins in the ’98 World Cup and Euros two years later. And who will ever forget his stellar showing in 2006 when he seemed to turn back time and dragged France kicking and screaming to the finals. It might have ended with his infamous headbutt, but Zidane’s legendary status was long established by that point. To top things off, he’s done more than alright as Real Madrid coach too.
Attacking midfielder: Michel Platini – (Active from 1972-1988, France caps: 72, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Notable clubs: Nancy, St-Etienne, Juventus)
Another name modern football fans will know, but mostly for the wrong reasons. Platini’s time as UEFA chief ended when he was ousted for corruption. Yet, to judge him only on his career as an administrator is a tad bit unfair.
Platini did not possess much in the way of physical attributes – he wasn’t quick or hard-working, and his stamina would not hold up in modern times. But he was a genius on the ball, possessing technique vision and a brain that could read the game very well. He was also an excellent goal-scorer despite playing off the striker.
He won the Euros with France in 1984 and although he never won a World Cup, individual plaudits followed. Platini is a three-time Ballon d’Or winner and also won many trophies during his time at Juventus. If only his time as an administrator was even half as good as his playing career, he would be more fondly remembered.
Striker: Just Fontaine – (Active from 1950-62, caps: 21, World Cup wins: 0, Major career achievements: scored 13 goals in 1958 World Cup, Notable clubs: Nice, Reims)
Fontaine is the outlier in this list, as he didn’t manage to make as many appearances for France as others did. Not that it mattered much; the matches he did play saw him make a massive impact. Indeed, his record as a goal-scorer stands out tremendously even taking into consideration the era he played in.
Fontaine is best remembered for scoring 13 goals in the 1958 FIFA World Cup, a record for most goals in a single edition of the tournament that still stands. He is also the fourth-highest goal-scorer in the history of the World Cup, despite only playing in one edition. The others – Miroslav Klose, Gerd Muller and Ronaldo all played multiple tournaments.
He was also prolific at club level, scoring 44 goals in three seasons at Nice and also 122 goals in 131 appearances for Reims. It was for his country, however, that Fontaine truly shone – 30 goals in 21 games! He was forced to retire due to recurring injury issues at just 28, meaning his record could have been even better.
Striker: Thierry Henry – (Active from 1994-2014, caps: 123, World Cup wins: 1, Major career achievements: considered one of the greatest Premier League strikers in history, Notable clubs: Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona)
Another legend of the modern game, Henry was the prototype of what a complete striker should look like. He was prolific when put in front of goal but his all-round play was exquisite. Henry could dribble, link up the play with others, make valuable assists and even work hard for the team.
It is little surprise Henry is considered one of the most influential players to ever step foot in the Premier League. One look at his stats is enough to understand why. 175 goals in 258 games as well as numerous assists speak of a game-changing player who could single-handedly win matches.
His France career featured numerous highs (’98 World Cup and ’00 Euros wins) and lows (2010 handball incident) but he did score 51 goals for Les Blues too. No line-up of France legends could possibly be complete without Thierry Henry.
Manager: Didier Deschamps
Deschamps is arguably unlucky to miss out on being part of the all-time XI. A tidy defensive midfielder with leadership skills galore, he captained France in 1998 and 2000 when they conquered the world and Europe.
But he has also excelled greatly as their manager, becoming easily the most successful man to be at the helm of Les Bleus. He led them to the final of Euro 2016 where they narrowly lost out to Portugal. He then went the distance two years later in the World Cup at Russia, making France two-time world champions.
Deschamps also became only the third player after Mario Zagallo (Brazil) and Franz Beckenbauer (Germany) to win the tournament as a player and manager. Additionally, he became only the second after Beckenbauer to both captain and manage his team to World Cup glory.