VIVE LA REVOLUTION! – French football embarks on a bright new dawn
French football has endured something of an underwhelming period since the national team lost out on penalties to Italy in the 2006 World Cup Final. A limp display at the 2008 European Championships saw les Bleus finish bottom of their group and yet more ignominy followed two years later when the team returned home in disgrace after the farce of a training ground revolt.
France faired only slightly better in Poland and the Ukraine last year, making it out of the group stage only to be beaten in the first knock-out round by eventual winners, Spain. The team received heavy criticism on their return and coach Laurent Blanc stepped down soon after.
This season has been different however. French football has again found its voice after a difficult period of underachieving. At the vanguard of this new found confidence is the recently awakened sleeping giant of Paris St Germain. New investment has come in the shape of the Qatar Investment Authority who bought the club for €50m last year – a sum which covered an estimated €15-20m of debt and losses of €19m from the 2010–11 season.
PSG immediately became one of the richest clubs in World football and it’s new owners have since embarked on an ambitious transfer campaign that has seen some of football’s biggest names brought to the French capital. Runaway leaders of Ligue 1 this season, the club are on the verge of clinching their first title since 1994.
It is in Europe that PSG have really impressed however, romping through the group stage with five wins from six games before seeing off Valencia in the first knock-out round to set up a mouth-watering quarter final against La Liga giants Barcelona.
A packed Parc des Princes saw Carlo Ancelotti’s men secure a dramatic 2-2 draw in the first leg, as Blaise Mauidi’s injury time leveller sent the teams back to Catalunya with everything to play for. It was not to be for the Parisians however, and they were desperately unlucky to exit the tournament on away goals after earning an impressive 1-1 draw at Camp Nou. Despite the disappointment, PSG had shown the watching millions that they could compete at the very highest level – something French clubs have not done in some time.
There is sure to be more investment during the summer and few would be surprised to see PSG go even further next season – maybe even emulating France’s only previous European Cup winner, Marseille, in the process.
While PSG rejuvenate French club football, the national team are also on the up. Didier Deschamps’ men currently sit second in Group I of the World Cup Qualifying stage, just one point behind World and European Champions Spain, and are playing their best football for some time. While most attention has been cast towards Paris and the goings on at the Parc des Princes, les Bleus are currently and quietly undergoing a revolution of their own – a revolution built on youth.
The recent 3-1 victory over Georgia at Saint Denis saw Deschamps hand full debuts to two of France’s most exciting young talents in Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane and the duo repaid their coach with mature and assured performances. Both players then started the crunch game against Spain four days later which France were unlucky to lose by the single goal. Pogba was also unfortunate to see red against the Spanish after picking up two yellow cards.
The 20-year-old midfielder has enjoyed a fantastic first season at Juventus, scoring five times in 24 games for Antonio Conte’s side, and has drawn comparisons to the great Patrick Viera. Interestingly, Viera himself, now undertaking a football development role at Manchester City, is reported to have said Pogba is even better than he was at the age of twenty.
Whether this is true only time will tell, however it may also have been said slightly tongue in cheek to enforce the regret Sir Alex Ferguson must feel after seeing Pogba slip through his hands at Manchester United.
While Pogba has been earning rave reviews in Italy, France’s other debutant against Georgia, Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, has arguably had an even better season than his young compatriot – having played 25 times for Jose Mourinho’s reigning La Liga Champions.
Varane moved to the Spanish capital in 2011 after just one season in the first team at Lens, and has blossomed into one of the finest defenders in Europe. Composed on the ball and blessed with lightening pace, Varane seemingly has it all and is tipped by many as a future captain of the French national side.
Elsewhere in Spain, 22-year-old Antoine Griezmann has also had a fine season at Real Sociedad, helping fire the Basque outfit into the top four – putting them on the cusp of an once-unlikely qualification into next season’s Uefa Champions League. Griezmann has had an interesting career so far, leaving his homeland aged just 14 after struggling to sufficiently impress a number of French clubs. Luckily for the youngster, he was offered a youth contract in San Sebastian and has not looked back since.
Although yet to win a full cap for his country it surely cannot be long before Deschamps brings him into the fold.
In Southern Spain yet another French youngster is earning rave reviews this season. Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia, who joined the club last summer, again from Lens, has impressed in establishing himself in the heart of the club’s midfield. Capped at every youth level since he was 15, 20-year-old Kondogbia is surely another youngster who has a promising international future ahead of him.
While the likes of Patrice Evra and Franck Ribery may be heading into the latter stages of their careers at international level, the current crop of French youngsters suggest les Bleus have a solid future ahead of them. Since taking over the managerial reins from Laurent Blanc last year, Didier Deschamps has shown he is not averse to giving youth a chance and his bold selections are currently paying dividends.
Although France eventually lost their World Cup qualifying game against Spain, the 1-0 victory flattered the visitors. If the French had taken the many chances they created in front of goal, they could have run out fairly comfortable winners – and that is surely some improvement on their lacklustre exit to Vicente del Bosque’s side at last year’s European Championships.
They may well finish behind the Spaniards in the qualification group, however, it would take a brave man to bet against them securing the place in Brazil through the two-legged play-off. Add to that the anticipation and publicity that is being generated by the project at PSG and it is clear French football has some exciting times ahead of it.