A random idea Vikram gave me…
So the other day, Vikram and I had a discussion about Eric Cantona and his place among the greatest ever French forwards. While we had some disagreements and disputes about Cantona’s proper position compared to the likes of Thierry Henry and Jean-Pierre Papin, it spun off an idea to name an all-time France XI. As an avid follower of French football, I rose to the challenge. And man, it was quite a challenge…
So we need to lay some ground rules before we begin. Firstly, this team will be based on their entire career, not specifically focusing on their club career or their performances with Les Bleus. I do not want to give an unfair advantage, or disadvantage, to players who had strong club careers but never truly replicated that level for France or players who achieved many things in the blue shirt but never replicated that accomplishment at club level. Secondly, the layout of the team and position the players are in has to make footballing sense. I am not going to play Zidane as a defensive midfielder just to force in more attacking midfielders, as that would not make sense. The team selection will be broken down into their relative positions in real life, more or less pairing up attacking midfielders and wingers, center forwards and strikers, and box-to-box and defensive midfielders. The final team has to be one that makes sense as a team, not just having the best players shoehorned in. Finally, the formation will be a 4-2-3-1, partially because that is the formation that France more or less used in World Cup 1998, Euro 2000, and World Cup 2018, but also because it fits the second criterion much better than a 4-4-2. I will name a starting XI in that 4-2-3-1, as well as an “honorable mention” seven-player substitutes bench.
Ok, and now to get started…
Goalkeeper: Fabien Barthez
In goal for this team is Barthez, a man who really needs no introduction. While he is an eccentric character, there is no doubt he had a career to place him as the best French goalkeeper ever. In his 87 caps for France, he was an integral part of the 1998 World Cup winning team and the Euro 2000 winning team, being named the best goalkeeper of the 1998 World Cup and making the team of the tournament at World Cup 98 and Euro 2000. At club level, he is fondly remembered as a club legend at Marseille, being in goal for the club’s Champions League Final triumph over Milan in 1993. He was the youngest goalkeeper to win the Champions League at the time at only 22 years old, though that record would eventually be beaten by Iker Casillas. After Marseille’s relegation to Ligue 2 due to a match fixing scandal, he remained with the club, despite prominent offers to move away, and helped them get promoted back to Ligue 1. He would win two more league titles with Monaco, as well as be a part of the Monegasque team that famously knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League in 1998. His later move to United was turbulent, being tasked with replacing club legend Peter Schmeichel and being unable to consistently follow up a fantastic first season, but he was still a brilliant goalkeeper when he was at his best.
While he was very short for his position, standing at only 5’11”, he made up for it with incredible athleticism, shot stopping ability, and confidence to read the game and take risks. Those risks would cost him at times, especially when he was in Manchester, but it was part of what made him the goalkeeper he was. His brilliance for club and country made him a hero amongst many, and he is without a doubt the best goalkeeper France has ever produced.
Right Back: Lilian Thuram
We continue the 1998/2000 theme in defense, which will be the case throughout the whole back four, with Thuram, who was one of the best defensive players in the world in his prime. He was able to combine a unique blend of physical skill, attacking quality, and defensive intelligence that made him able to thrive both as a center back and a right back, though he was often at right back for the national team. Despite his aggressive defensive style, he was a quite healthy player, maintaining a fairly high level over a 17-year career, though a heart defect would eventually force his retirement.
At club level, Thuram only played for four teams over 17 seasons, but was a stalwart in three of those four, becoming a crucial player for Monaco, Parma, and Juventus. For Monaco, he was a fixture in defense for the team that won the Coupe de France in 1991 and reached the final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1992. This earned him a move to Parma, where he would continue to thrive. Joining a back line that already included Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon, Thuram elevated to the high level of his illustrious teammates, becoming a key cog in the defense of a Parma team that regularly fought for the Champions League places, once finishing second in the title race behind Juventus in the 1996/97 season. Also at Parma, he won the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup in 1999, following up his fantastic performances at the 1998 World Cup. Thuram would follow Cannavaro and Buffon to Juventus, forming an incredible back line alongside Gianluca Zambrotta at left back and Jonathan Zebina at right back. He would win two league titles with Juve but would leave the club in 2006 following their relegation due to the Calciopoli scandal. He would go to Barcelona, but he would only play two seasons due to being behind in the pecking order at center back, agreeing to a move to PSG before being forced to retire due to a heart defect.
Even with how good Thuram’s reputation was at club level, he was an icon for his country. He remains France’s most capped ever player, making 142 appearances in a blue shirt. He was a fixture in the defense of the World Cup 98 and Euro 2000 winning teams, making the Team of the Tournament in both competitions and even winning the Bronze Ball at World Cup 98. He remained an ever-present player for Les Bleus up until his retirement in 2008, with a career longevity that allowed him to make that ridiculous number of appearances for his country. Thuram was a great player for both club and country, but what probably allowed him to reach the level he did was how long he was able to maintain that high level of performance.
Center Back: Marcel Desailly
Arguably France’s most accomplished ever defensive player, with skill on the pitch matched only by his charisma and iconic laugh off the pitch, Marcel Desailly was a certain pick in this team. Combining incredible physical skills, a strong defensive IQ and ability to read the game, as well as a very good ability on the ball and passing range, Desailly was a truly complete center back, a “Rolls Royce” player, as some might describe him today.
Desailly began his career coming out of the Nantes youth development system alongside fellow France international and close friend Didier Deschamps. He then moved to Marseille, where he was the rock at the back in the OM team that won the Champions League in 1993. He then moved to Milan, the team he beat with Marseille in the 1993 final, and added two league titles and another Champions League to his growing list of accolades. Despite center back being his preferred position, he was deployed in defensive midfield in Milan, which really allowed him to demonstrate his ability on the ball and ability to read the game and intercept passes. After an incredible run with Milan, he went to Chelsea in 1998. He added some more success onto his already illustrious club career, winning the FA Cup in 2000. He formed a great partnership with fellow Frenchman and 1998 teammate Frank Leboeuf. He would finish his career in Qatar for two seasons, rounding out an illustrious club career.
Desailly was a key part of the most decorated generation of national team talent in France’s history. He also had quite a long national team career, playing a key role in France teams from Euro 96 all the way to the 2003 Confederations Cup. He made the Team of the Tournament at Euro 96, World Cup 98, and Euro 2000, and his performances for club and country put him in the FIFA World XI in 1996. He was among France’s best players in their World Cup triumph, despite being sent off in the Final, and after their Euros win two years later, he was named captain of France, replacing his close friend Deschamps in that same role. In 2003, Desailly set the all-time record for appearances with Les Bleus, eventually winning 116 caps before his retirement in 2004. This record would hold until Lillian Thuram surpassed it in 2006.
Center Back: Laurent Blanc
Le Président. A man mountain at the back for club and country and possibly the main leader in the dressing room throughout his career. Blanc had a legendary career for club and country, and it was almost a career that never was.
Blanc was well traveled during his club career, playing for nine different teams over a 20 year career. Despite the significant travels, he was still successful, winning a league title with Auxerre and Manchester United, as well as cups with Montpellier and Barcelona and reaching the UEFA Cup Final with Marseille. He truly shined with his country, and it was an incredibly successful career that almost never was. He was a part of the France U21 team, along with Eric Cantona, that won the U21 Euros in 1988, but the beginning of his senior international career did not have the same level of success. France failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, got knocked out in the group stages at Euro 92, and failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Following the failure in 1994 and subsequent heavy criticism from the French media, Blanc retired from the national team. This retirement was short-lived, as new France manager Aimé Jacquet made bringing him back into the fold a priority. Jacquet’s appointment, as well as Blanc’s return, made a significant impact, as France made the semifinals of Euro 96 and won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. Despite his suspension for the World Cup Final, he was still among the best players in that France team, scoring the first golden goal in the history of the competition to beat Paraguay in the Round of 16. He would make the Euros Team of the Tournament in 1992, 1996, and 2000, and his illustrious national team career was recognized when France Football named him the fourth best French player of the 20th Century, ahead of several players that made this team or honorable mentions and only behind Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane, and Raymond Kopa. The image of him kissing Fabien Barthez’s bald head, a good luck tradition they maintained throughout their whole career, was one of the lasting images of his career with France. He came remarkably close to joining the Centurion club, making 97 appearances for France. His temporary retirement could have been the factor that stopped him from reaching that benchmark. Despite this, and while he may not be as decorated as the previous players, he remains an icon of French football.
Left Back: Bixente Lizarazu
So this might be controversial. The two Man United fans I write with might be clamoring in defense of Patrice Evra, but in reality, it is not really that difficult of a choice. While Evra had a fantastic club career and (spoiler alert) features later in this list, there should not be much dispute that the Franco-Basque football/surfing extraordinaire Bixente Lizarazu is the best and arguably the most decorated left back in French history.
Lizarazu came through at Bordeaux, alongside fellow France international Christophe Dugarry, where he overcame the doubts of coaches and questions about his physical frame to make it into the first team, where he was converted from a winger to a rapid, counter-attacking left back. Bordeaux were relegated due to financial problems, but Lizarazu remained and helped them regain their top flight status. He would then combine with fellow France internationals Dugarry and a young Zinedine Zidane to help lead Les Girondins to an Intertoto Cup in 1995 and the final of the UEFA Cup in 1996, knocking out Real Betis an AC Milan along the way. He would then leave for Athletic Bilbao, becoming the first Franco-Basque player to play for Athletic in the club’s history. The stint in the Basque Country was short, however, and he would leave for Bayern shortly after. His time in Bavaria was wildly successful, winning six league titles and five DFB Pokals. He reached two Champions League Finals, losing to Manchester United in 1999 and beating Valencia in 2001. He also won the Intercontinental Cup with Bayern in 2001, becoming the first player to be reigning European and World champion at club and international level. He would be named to the UEFA Team of the Year in 2001 and FIFA World XI in 2002, being among the best left backs in the world at the time. At the international level, he was a fixture in the France defense for nearly a decade, playing a crucial role in the World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000 team. Like Blanc, he would also make 97 appearances for the national team, narrowly missing out on the fabled “100 cap” milestone. He would finish his career in 2006, making way for the emerging Philipp Lahm at Bayern and leaving football to pursue a variety of other different things, including surfing and jiu-jitsu. What a man, huh?
Defensive Midfielder: Patrick Vieira
I go into this entry saying up front how difficult it was to select the final midfield spot in this team. Out of a need to make this team make functioning sense, I needed a true defensive rock in midfield, and the choice was really between Patrick Vieira and Claude Makélélé. Vieira wins out, a very difficult choice, but his talent, illustrious winning career, and almost legendary leadership ability was hard to say no to. Vieira was the true definition of a complete midfielder, able to really play in any role and adept enough to play a role in attack or shield a back line in defense. It is very difficult to find something he is bad at.
Vieira came through at Cannes, helping the club get promoted from Ligue 2 back to Ligue 1 and captaining the club at only 19 years old. When Cannes struggled following promotion, he would leave for AC Milan, though he would not seriously feature in the first team. He would leave for Arsenal soon after, citing the influence of the appointment of manager Arsène Wenger in his decision to go to North London. He would kickstart a legendary career there, winning three league titles, three FA Cups, be named club captain, and becoming a crucial cog in midfield and leader of the famed “Invincibles” team, one of the best teams in Premier League history. He would make the PFA Team of the Year six times and would be named Premier League Player of the Season in 2000/01. He also made the UEFA Team of the Year in 2001 and was named French Player of the Year by France Football in 2001. He is arguably the most iconic Premier League captain, and his rivalry with Manchester United captain Roy Keane remains legendary. Vieira had a less stellar but still solid season with Juventus in 2005/06, but would leave the club after Juve’s relegation due to the Calciopoli scandal. He would go to Inter, where he would add another four league titles before finishing his career with Manchester City. An illustrious, fantastic winning career, among the most successful of any player in this team.
His career with France was just as successful, famously kicking it off by coming on during the 1998 World Cup Final as a 22 year old to assist Emmanuel Petit’s goal that wrapped up the victory. While not a first-choice player in midfield in 1998, he stepped into the fold in 2000 as a crucial midfield player, partnering captain Didier Deschamps and being named in the Team of the Tournament. He also would score the winner in the 2001 Confederations Cup Final against Japan, winning the Silver Ball in that tournament. He played a central role in France’s run to the 2006 World Cup Final as well, unfortunately coming off injured in the Final but still making the tournament’s All-Star Team. He would captain France in two different stints, following Zidane’s temporary national team retirement in 2004 and his permanent retirement in 2006. He would finish his international career in 2009, making 107 appearances and being one of seven French players to earn over 100 caps.
Defensive Midfielder: Jean Tigana
Now for a name many of you may be unfamiliar with. I would definitely make the argument that French football is better now, mainly from 1996 onwards, than it was in the past, but there were legendary players, especially from the 80s, that cannot be ignored in this conversation. Tigana is a big name in this conversation and fits into this team well, sharing some similar characteristics with his midfield partner Vieira. While he does not have the physical frame of the 6’4″ Vieira, Tigana is also a very well-rounded midfielder, able to function well in a defensive role or going forward. Comparatively to Vieira, he is probably less of a goalscoring threat but a very adept passer, so they would compliment each other well in this hypothetical team.
Tigana forged a solid 16 year club career, featuring for Toulon, Lyon, Bordeaux, and Marseille. The most successful stint of his club career came in an eight year span with Bordeaux, where he won Ligue 1 three times, the Coupe de France twice, and helped guide Les Girondins the semifinal of the European Cup in 1985 and semifinal of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987, losing to Juventus and Lokomotive Leipzig, respectively. This coincided with the peak of his France career, as well as the peak of that France team in the 1980s. He formed one corner of the Carré Magique (magic square) midfield with Luis Fernández, Alain Giresse, and Michel Platini, which would be crucial in carrying France to fourth place at the 1982 World Cup, win the 1984 Euros, and finish third at the 1986 World Cup. 1984 would also be a very good year for him personally, as he would win French Player of the Year and finish runner-up for the Ballon d’Or and Onze d’Or, losing out to Platini in both cases. He would also finish third for the Onze d’Or in 1987, losing out to Marco van Basten and Diego Maradona. He is among the few French players to finish this high in Ballon d’Or and Onze d’Or voting. He would move on to Marseille in 1989, being influential in the OM team that won the league title and reached the semifinal of the European Cup. He would still feature in 1990/91, but to less of an extent, being more of a rotational piece in the team that defended their Ligue 1 title and famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) lost in the European Cup Final to Red Star Belgrade. He would retire in 1991, later beginning a fairly successful managerial career, but mainly remembered as one of the biggest “pre-98” icons in French football.
Attacking Midfielder: Raymond Kopa
You may have heard of the Trophée Kopa, the award given to the best young player in the world, with the inaugural award being won by Kylian Mbappé in 2018. That trophy was named after this man, Raymond Kopa, among the best and most decorated French players ever.
Born Raymond Kopaszewski to Polish immigrants in northern France, Kopa came through at Angers, in Ligue 2 at the time, before moving to Ligue 1 side Reims. As a dynamic and creative attacking playmaker, he played a central role in the great Reims teams of the 1950s, winning two league titles and leading the team to the European Cup Final in 1956, losing to Real Madrid. His performance in the final did impress Real Madrid, who brought him to the Spanish capital in 1956, joining an already illustrious team alongside the likes of Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás. He would win three consecutive European Cups in 1957, 1958, and 1959, becoming the first French player to win the European Cup and catapulting himself into the levels of the best players in the world. He would win the Ballon d’Or in 1958, becoming the first of four French players to win the world’s main best player of the year award. He also finished runner up for the Ballon d’Or in 1959 and third place in 1956 and 1957. This coincided with the 1958 World Cup, where he was among the best performers of the tournament and helped France to the semifinals. He would return to Reims in 1959, winning another two Ligue 1 titles and, when the club were relegated, staying to win the Ligue 2 title to get them back to the top flight. He retired in 1967, leaving as arguably the greatest French player ever at the time.
While his Reims and France teammate Just Fontaine narrowly misses out from this team, Kopa was a certain to be in. As the first French player to win the Ballon d’Or and a multi-time European Champion, he is among the most decorated French players in history.
Attacking Midfielder: Zinedine Zidane
Well, here he is, arguably the best French player ever. I do not think I actually need to make a claim for his inclusion here, but I will give it a go anyway.
So Zidane’s story is pretty famous, but I will go over it in quick detail. Zidane was born in Marseille but started his career with AS Cannes, fully entering into their youth set up after a six-week initial stay with the club. He helped guide Cannes to their highest ever finish, ending up fourth in the 1989/90 season, his first professional season with the club. He then moved to Bordeaux, where, combining with fellow France internationals Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry, Les Girondins reached the final of the UEFA Cup in 1996. He would also win Ligue 1 Player of the Year that same year. He would then leave for Juventus, where he would truly kick off his illustrious, world-conquering career. He won a lot of things in Turin, including his only Ballon d’Or and several other World Player of the Year honors. He then left for Real Madrid and won a lot more things, including his only Champions League title, when he scored a now world-famous volley that would end up being the winning goal. For France, he was a crucial part of the 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euros triumphs, being Man Of the Match in the 1998 Final and winning Player Of the Tournament in 2000. His two goals in the Final in 1998 catapulted him to the status of national icon, becoming probably the most popular athlete in France at the time. France did not match this level at World Cup 2002 or Euro 2004, but at World Cup 2006, he shone once again. He put on a stellar, Man Of the Match display against Brazil in the quarterfinals and scored the winning goal in the semifinals to lead them to the final. He scored the first goal in the final, but was infamously sent off after head-butting Marco Materazzi. France would lose on penalties, but Zidane remained iconic among the French public. He is one of seven players with over 100 France caps and, as of right now, remains France’s fifth highest ever goalscorer.
I do not need to justify this that much. He is a lock in this team. When it comes to the distinction of being the best French player ever, he clearly has the title of being the best of the modern era (90s-today), with his Ballon d’Or, Champions League triumph, and his crucial performance in the 1998 Final launching him into iconic status. There is a valid debate between him and Platini, but the difference in era makes it hard to find a clear winner between the two. Speaking of which…
Attacking Midfielder: Michel Platini
Well, here he is, another one of the players considered arguably the best French player ever. Again, he is a lock into this team, but I will say a bit anyway.
Platini was an incredible footballer. Playing as a dynamic, playmaking attacking midfielder, he was the center of every team he played for. He made things happen going forward, providing for his teammates while also being a prolific goalscorer in his own right. He began his career at Nancy, taking Ligue 1 by storm. When extended injury kept him out, leading to Nancy’s relegation, he came back and basically carried the club to promotion in 1975, continuing on to win the Coupe de France in 1978. Despite some disappointing performances for the national team at the time, he still played at a high enough level to earn a move to Saint-Étienne. He joined Les Verts as the final key needed to win the European Cup, and despite winning Ligue 1 in 1981, ASSÉ were unable to achieve their European dream, also losing two Coupe de France finals in the process. He would agree to leave the Rhône club for Juventus, but before his arrival in Turin, Platini was a key part of the France team that made a surprising run to the semifinals of the 1982 World Cup, losing a heartbreaking match to West Germany on penalties. His career would be launched into the stratosphere in Turin, and Platini became arguably the best player in the world. He would be the Serie A top scorer for three consecutive seasons, winning three straight Ballon d’Ors from 1983-1985, and winning two Scudetti and one Coppa Italia with Juventus in that time. They reached the European Cup Final in 1983, losing to Hamburg, and in 1985, beating Liverpool. His form would carry on to the national team, scoring nine of France’s 14 goals on their way to winning the European Championship in 1984. He was the central figure in France’s Carré Magique (magic square) with Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse, and Luis Fernández, a unit that defined a generation of French football. His decline was unfortunately quite rapid, as he would be out of football completely in 1987. France again reached the semifinal of the 1986 World Cup, again losing to West Germany, but Platini was much less of an impactful player for Les Bleus in Mexico, compared to how he performed at his last two international tournaments. It was clear the end was near for the French icon.
Platini is considered to be the best French athlete of the 20th Century, so there was no way he was not going to be in this team. Also, he is, at the moment, France’s second highest ever goalscorer, which is nothing to scoff at. I will not be giving my take on the Platini vs. Zidane debate, but it is clear both have their highlights and lowlights, relatively speaking, in their careers, but they are both without a doubt worthy of a spot in any all-time France team.
Center Forward: Thierry Henry
Ok, finally, the last of the three “arguably the best French player ever” players. Once again, there is no way you have an all-time France team and not put Thierry Henry in it, but I will talk a bit regardless.
Henry was one of the first notable graduates of the now-world famous Centre Technique National Fernand Sastre, otherwise known as INF Clairefontaine or just Clairefontaine. Upon graduation from Clairefontaine, he was fully brought into the youth set up at AS Monaco, then managed by a young Arsène Wenger. He broke into the first team in 1994, slowly and tentatively finding his way into the world of professional football. He would find his feet rather quickly and grow into a very good young player, winning French Young Footballer of the Year in 1996 and helping Monaco win Ligue 1 in 1997 and reach the Champions League semifinal in 1998. This rapid growth earned him a spot in the national team, where he famously rode the bench behind Stéphane Guivarc’h on the way to France winning the World Cup in 1998 (to be fair, he was France’s top scorer, having scored three goals in the competition. But never forget that Guivarc’h started ahead of Thierry Henry).
After the World Cup, he left Monaco for Juventus, where he would struggle, leaving soon to reunite with Wenger at Arsenal. Brought in to replace the departed Nicolas Anelka, Wenger took Henry out of his usual winger role and converted him into a striker, which, in hindsight, seemed to have been a good idea. He won a lot at Arsenal, including being part of the Invincibles and reaching a Champions League Final. He would again make the France team for Euro 2000, winning another international competition. In the 2002/03 season, Henry would score 24 goals and add 20 assists in the Premier League, setting a league assist record and becoming the first player in the 21st Century to have a 20+ goal 20+ assist season in league competition. Despite this, he controversially finished second in the Ballon d’Or race (how in the world did Pavel Nedved win it over him?). He was one of the best players in the competition in the 2006 World Cup, famously scoring the winning goal against Brazil in the quarterfinals. He would unfortunately come off injured in the final, being unavailable for the penalty shootout against the Italians. He would leave Arsenal in 2007, departing England as the highest scoring foreign player in Premier League history, a record that has since been overtaken. Despite his various records beginning to be caught, he is still remembered as arguably the best player in Premier League history. Henry then departed for Barcelona, where he combined with Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o to form the most prolific attacking trio in La Liga history up to that point. He would help guide Barcelona to an insane sextuple of honors, winning La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, the Supercopa de España, UEFA Super Cup, and FIFA Club World Cup in 2008/09. Pedro breaking into the team reduced first team chances for an aging Henry, and he eventually departed to the New York Red Bulls to finish his career. For the national team, France disappointed at Euro 2008, and his controversial hand-ball assist against Ireland helped France get into the 2010 World Cup, where they once again disappointed.
He retired from the national team after the 2010 World Cup, and despite the poor end to his international career, he still retired as France’s second most capped ever player and their all-time top scorer. His claim to being France’s best ever player rests on those significant national team distinctions, as he does not have the Ballon d’Or that Zidane and Platini have. Despite this debate, Henry is a lock for this team, purely on the fact that he is France’s top scorer, let alone his incredible Arsenal and Barcelona accolades.
So the team looks something like this:
Goalkeeper: Hugo Lloris
This is probably another controversial choice. Many would have gone for Julien Darui in this position. Darui was a fantastic goalkeeper, and there was a reason he was named the best French goalkeeper of the 20th Century by L’Équipe, but I think we are all somewhat underestimating and underrating the impact that Lloris has had on the team.
Lloris was formed through the Nice academy, playing for his boyhood club for several seasons, but it was his big move to Lyon that thrusted him into the spotlight. Being tasked with replacing club legend Grégory Coupet, Lloris more than rose to the challenge, becoming the best goalkeeper in Ligue 1 during his time at OL. The club was not able to replicate their 2000s success, however, so despite the clear talent of Lloris and the talent of his teammates, he only left Lyon with a Coupe de France and Trophée des Champions medal to his name, as well as a Champions League semifinal appearance. He would make a similar career move as Barthez, moving from Ligue 1 to the Premier League, in this case to Tottenham in 2012. He became a fixture for Spurs over eight seasons, being among the best keepers in the league at that time. His form did take some dips during his time in North London, as Barthez’s did while he was in Manchester, but he mostly performed at a high level for Spurs, pulling off some world-class saves when needed. Again, unfortunately, despite the high level of performances he put on in England, he has nothing much to show for it when it comes to team honors, as Spurs came close to a league title and Champions League glory but could not finish the job in either case.
For France, Lloris has a resumé that is tough to beat for any player. He is among seven players to amass over 100 caps for Les Bleus, having made 114 appearances up to this point in a blue shirt. He has also captained France more than any other player, having made 85 appearances as captain. Under his captaincy, France finished runners up at Euro 2016 and won the 2018 World Cup, where Lloris was among the best performers of the tournament. He finished runner up for the Best Goalkeeper award at FIFA’s The Best Awards in 2018 largely due to his heroics for France in Russia that year.
Lloris is the only current France player that makes this list. For the most part, I ruled out many of the current/2018 team since they are still playing and do not have a complete body of work over their career in order to contend for this team, but Lloris is a special case. Lloris has enough of a case for this team, and at only 33 years old, he has time to add to it.
Defender: Marius Trésor
Trésor is another one of those players that many are not familiar with, and looking at his career, there is very little to specifically grab on to when it comes to his position in this team, but many will speak to his immense talent.
Trésor came possibly a generation too soon, playing for France before the full arrival of the Carré Magique. However, he was still an immensely talented central defender who had a very long and prosperous career in France during the mid-to-late 1970s. He was named French Player of the Year in 1972, adding a Coupe de France with Marseille and a Ligue 1 title with Bordeaux onto his honors list. He was a legend at OM, being a fixture in their defense for nearly a decade. He was a rock at the back during the 1982 World Cup, where France made a surprise run to the semifinal. He was an incredibly well-rounded defender, possibly a precursor to the defensive players we see now. It is very unfortunate that he misses out to two unbelievable defensive players, but he is a fantastic alternate choice.
Defender: Patrice Evra
Now here we have some real controversy. Why Lizarazu and not Evra? Well, it is quite simple.
Do not get me wrong, Patrice Evra was a brilliant player, I am not saying he wasn’t. He took some time to get going, but he emerged as one of the best young left backs in the world at Monaco, where he would be a key player in the Monaco teams that won the Coupe de la Ligue in 2003 and reached the Champions League Final in 2004. He would also win UNFP Young Player of the Year in 2004. He continued at a high level before moving to Manchester United in 2006, where he became one of the best left backs in the world. He won five Premier League titles and a Champions League, making the UEFA Team of the Year and FIFPro World XI in 2009. He remained a fixture in the United team until 2014, when he would leave for Juventus and win two more league titles. He finished his career with a whimper, with rather lackluster spells at Marseille and West Ham, but he was still a very successful player, remembered as one of the best Premier League left backs ever. So, why Lizarazu and not him?
Lizarazu was also a very successful player, winning quite a bit and being recognized as one of the best in his position, but the main red flag when arguing Evra’s case is his history with Les Bleus, particularly surrounding one specific event that took place in South Africa in 2010. France’s time at the 2010 World Cup was tumultuous, to say the least, and it was clear that there were chemistry issues in the team. Manager Raymond Domenech extenuated the issues within the team, and the dismissal of Nicolas Anelka kicked off a mutiny within the team. Evra was reportedly the leader of the mutiny, and he did much to strengthen the issues and divisions within the team. 2010 is remembered as a national shame, and Evra was one of the biggest targets of scrutiny from the French media. He would eventually be let back into the France team in 2012, but he was never the same player, and the memories of his role in the 2010 mutiny has never left. Lizarazu is remembered as one of the heroes of 1998, almost a 180 degree difference. This seems a bit unfair, but that is the degree to which 2010 still lingers in French football. This is a whole discussion of the entirety of a player’s career, and I do not think any player has a red flag on their CV as big as Evra’s role in the mutiny.
Midfielder: Alain Giresse
The third peg of the magic square, Giresse unfortunately missed out due to how I restricted selection in the midfield. Giresse is one of the few French players to finish as a runner up for the Ballon d’Or, a distinction that would normally get a player into an all-time team. His two Ligue 1 titles and three French Player of the Year awards also add to a sterling playing resumé. He acted as an attacking midfielder, shining for Bordeaux and Marseille throughout his career and acting as a brilliant foil to Platini for the national team. He was a brilliant player and an important part of the France team that won Euro 84, but he misses out due to technicality. Despite his incredible case for inclusion, he was never beating out Platini, Zidane, or Kopa, who all won the Ballon d’Or. He is also not a defensive midfielder, so I cannot include him over Vieira or Tigana and keep to the ground rules I set at the beginning. Unfortunate, but still worthy of recognition for his incredible career.
Midfielder: Claude Makélélé
I will say it up front, the choice between Vieira and Makélélé was very difficult. When a player has a literal role in a team named after him, as Makélélé does, it is hard to argue that he has had a limited impact on French football.
Makélélé came through at Nantes, where he played the first six seasons of his career. He was a key part of the Nantes team that won Ligue 1 in 1995, coming one game away from being France’s first invincible team. His Nantes side would also reach the Champions League semifinal the next season, suffering a heartbreaking loss to Juventus in the semifinals. He moved to Celta Vigo for a few seasons before being picked out as a key signing for the famed Real Madrid “Galacticos” team. He added two league titles and a Champions League title with Los Blancos, becoming one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. He was very under-appreciated in Madrid, however, and this would lead to him leaving the club for Chelsea in 2003. He started fairly well for Chelsea, but when José Mourinho arrived in 2004, he became a crucial player in the team. He would add two league titles and a FA Cup, as well as earning a spot in the 2005 FIFPro World XI. For France, he was not able to take part in World Cup 98 or Euro 2000, but he got into the team for Euro 2004, where France disappointed. He came back into the team for the 2006 World Cup, where he shone alongside Vieira in midfield. He reluctantly took part in qualification for Euro 2008, but retired from the national team following France’s disappointing end to that competition.
So why Vieira and Tigana over him? It was very tough. Tigana’s inclusion in Ballon d’Or discussions, as well as a Euros title, got him in, but it was very marginal with Vieira. I went with Vieira due to his reputation as a legendary Premier League captain, as well as his role in the 1998 and 2000 team. Both were very accomplished players, but Vieira was just that little bit more accomplished and more well-rounded of a player. Even then, Makélélé deserved a little shoutout in this section.
Forward: Jean-Pierre Papin
Yes, this is very harsh. You read before that there were four French players to win the Ballon d’Or in their careers. Zidane, Platini, and Kopa are all in the team. Papin was the fourth to win the award, but he finds himself in the honorable mentions. I will explain why in a bit, but first, the background.
Papin was born in northern France and began his footballing career in the north with Valenciennes. He then moved across the border to Club Brugge in Belgium, where he would only spend one season. Despite only being there for a limited time, he is still considered by many supporters to be their best ever foreign player.
He moved to Marseille in 1986, where he would reach the peak of his powers. He would help OM win four consecutive Ligue 1 titles from 1989 to 1992, being top scorer in Ligue 1 for all four of those seasons, as well as in 1988. He also led OM to their first ever Champions League Final appearance in 1991, where they would lose to Red Star Belgrade on penalties. He would win the Ballon d’Or that season, becoming the only French player to win the award while playing in Ligue 1. He is considered by many to be the best striker to ever play in Ligue 1, and his consistently incredible performances for OM attracted suitors from abroad.
The major weakness of his resumé in this discussion is that, unlike many famous French strikers who came out of Ligue 1, he could not find much success abroad. He would leave for AC Milan in 1992 for a world-record fee, becoming the first high-profile French player to transfer into Serie A since Platini left Saint-Étienne for Juventus. He would struggle in Milan, however, dealing with significant injury issues and adaptation problems. He was also a victim of the pre-Bosman era rules that restricted the amount of foreign players Milan could field, and when you are competing for positions with the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, and Ruud Gullit, it is hard to find playing time. Papin would play intermittently in Milan, famously making a substitute appearance in the 1993 Champions League Final against Marseille, where his former club would triumph over the Rossoneri. Milan would win the Champions League the next season, but Papin played a small role and did not feature in the Final. He would leave Milan for Bayern Munich in 1994, but would again play a limited role due to injury issues. He then returned to France with Bordeaux and Guingamp, but he could not recapture the magic that he had when he was with Marseille.
Papin’s time with the national team was also a mixed bag. He scored 30 goals in 54 caps, which is a very respectable return, but he came at quite a poor time. While he did play a role in France’s third place finish at the 1986 World Cup, the peak of his career came during Les Bleus‘ “cursed generation”, the gap between the Platini/Tigana/Giresse teams of the 1980s and the Zidane/Vieira/Desailly/etc. teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. While Papin wore a blue shirt, France failed to qualify for the Euro 1988 and the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, and they would humiliatingly fall out of the group stage at Euro 1992. Papin was a shining light in an incredibly forgettable era of football for Les Bleus.
Papin’s time at Marseille was electric, showing the signs of a true superstar, but he was never able to extend that success elsewhere. That is largely why he does not feature in this team. Also, he is competing against France’s all-time leading scorer and one of the best forwards to ever play football. At his peak, Papin was a brilliant player, and he deserves a mention but not a spot in the full team.
Forward: Eric Cantona
Here you go, United fans. Vikram, Ryn, here you go. Here is your king. Here is my answer to that initial debate, Vikram. I saved it for the very end.
Eric Cantona: what a man, what a player, what a personality. United fans hail him as “Eric the King”, one of the legendary players that wore the number seven in that red shirt. His reputation is very deserved, he was an absolutely brilliant player in his prime. He has an interesting legacy in France, and has a very interesting story tied to that. But, more on that later.
Cantona was born and raised in Marseille, in a home that began, more or less, as a cave. There are interesting stories, which I am unsure if they are true, about that same cave being used as a scouting post by the Nazis during World War II, but that may just be a story. He began his professional career at Auxerre, and he fought his way back into the first team after he had to interrupt his career to serve his compulsory national service. He was brilliant for Auxerre, earning him his first national cap at a very young age. His infamous disciplinary issues started around then, however, as he would be fined after punching his teammate. In 1988, he was suspended three months for kung-fu kicking Nantes defender Michel Der Zakarian, a suspension Auxerre would lobby enough to get reduced by a third (but keep that phrase “kung-fu kick” in mind). He would stay with the youth national team set up for a little bit longer, being the star player in the France team that won the U21 Euros in 1988, earning him a move to Marseille in 1989. He struggled to break through with the club he supported as a boy, leading to two loan spells, one with Bordeaux and one with Montpellier. At Montpellier, he got into a fight with a teammate, which almost jeopardized his career, but he was given a second chance and guided Montpellier to the Coupe de France in 1990. Returning to OM, he played well for large stretches of the season, but he developed major issues with club chairman Bernard Tapie. He helped OM win the league in 1991, but the issues led to him leaving the club for Nîmes. At Nîmes, he would be suspended for throwing a ball at a referee, and after a turbulent disciplinary hearing with the FFF, he announced his retirement from football. He may have stayed retired had it not been for Michel Platini and Gérard Houllier, who convinced him to come back and leave France, eventually going to Leeds United in 1992 after being rejected by Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday.
With Leeds, he would be a critical piece in the team that won the league title in 1991/92, being the team’s primary playmaker. The next season, however, would end up being hit-or-miss for the Frenchman, with some dips in form combined with poor man management from Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson degrading the relationship between Cantona and the club and leading to him issuing a transfer request by fax. He then joined direct rivals Manchester United and, yeah, he was very very good and won a lot of things. Four league titles, two FA Cups, league leading assister twice, league player of the year twice, third place in the Ballon d’Or, an Onze d’Or, and many other things characterized a legendary run with United. He also kung-fu kicked a Crystal Palace fan and was banned from football for a year, which, while still very notable, does not cover up the legendary moments that he had in a United shirt. But it is that one incident that had a massive impact on his career in a way many people do not realize, and it revolves around his time in a France shirt, rather than in England.
After his aforementioned brilliance at the U21 Euros in 1988, you would think he would have been a fixture in the national team, right? Well, no, he insulted France manager Henri Michel on TV and was banned from the team, but when Michel was sacked in 1990 and replaced by Michel Platini, Cantona came in and was a fixture in the team, starting alongside Papin up front. When Platini resigned after Euro 1992, Gérard Houllier came in and continued to stick with Cantona. When France failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, Houllier resigned, and Aimé Jacquet came in as manager. Jacquet was also a big fan of Cantona, and Cantona was named France captain and was utilized as the team’s primary playmaker while Jacquet worked to rebuild Les Bleus ahead of Euro 1996. This is where the twist comes in. Jacquet had every intention of keeping Cantona in the team for the Euros, but his year long suspension following the incident at Selhurst Park meant he was unable to participate in Euro 96. This required Jacquet to dig into the pool of young, up-and-coming players to fill out the team and fill the void Cantona left. He found his ideal replacement in a young Marseille-born playmaking midfielder by the name of Zinedine Zidane. France shockingly came third at Euro 96, and Jacquet decided after the competition to stick with the young players that had done so well. That meant that Zidane remained in the playmaking role, and Cantona suddenly found himself out of the France team. He would not be selected again. Cantona held serious resentment for this incident and has said repeatedly that had he stayed in the team, he would have extended his career to be involved in the 1998 World Cup. Honestly, I think he is right. He was only 30 when he retired, and it was clear he could still carry on at a high level. This decision was definitely not done out of spite by Jacquet. He loved Cantona and had every intention of him being the focal point of the team up to his suspension. When France did so well at Euro 96, largely due to the ’98 Generation, he made the logical decision to ride the in-form young players and leave behind the veterans, which also included the likes of Papin and David Ginola. Had the kung-fu kick at Selhurst Park not happened, I think Cantona would have played at the World Cup, and I think France still definitely could have won that competition. Maybe a World Cup would have changed his legacy?
Look, it is impossible to deny Cantona’s talent. He is a nutcase, yes, but he was an unbelievably talented player and an icon of 90s football. But does he deserve a spot in this team over Zidane or Henry? No, clearly not. Would having been in the 1998 team change things? Maybe, but this has to consider the whole body of work, and based on that, Zidane and Henry earned their spots in the team. It is just a statement on the incredible amount of talented French attacking players that someone like Cantona does not get into an all-time team.
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