Two decades ago, French football entered into the most exciting period of its history. In a very short time their national team surged straight from a crisis to the top of the world, helped out by one of the most remarkable generations in the history of the game. Even though their world dominance didn’t last long, the nation’s enormous talent pool has kept on producing fantastic players ever since.
Therefore we decided to present to you our take on the French Top Eleven from 1990 to 2010. As so many fine players wore the famous blue shirt over that period, we decided to make an Alternate XI as well, but even so, some big names had to be left out.
At the beginning of the period we’re covering here, France went through some very difficult times. The legendary French team of the eighties, led by legends like Platini, Giresse and Tigana, was a hard act to follow, but that hardly explains the national team missing two consecutive World Cups (1990, 1994), with a group stage exit at the Euro in between.
After a disastrous end to the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign, when they needed a single point from their home games against Israel and Bulgaria, but suffered two losses, a huge change was necessary. And it came with Aime Jacquet. The former defensive midfielder with five league titles as a Saint Etienne player and a further three as manager of Bordeaux, decided to leave some huge stars out of the team, including Eric Cantona, David Ginola and Jean Pierre Papin.
The emergence of Zinedine Zidane, who led Bordeaux on a unique journey from an early July entry into the Intertoto cup, all the way to UEFA finals in May 1996 (where they were finally stopped by the mighty Bayern), was a key ingredient in France making it to the top of the world.
For a long time immigrants and the children of immigrants played a huge part in the development of football in France, with many of the team’s stars for decades having foreign ancestry (Kopa, Fontaine, Platini, Tresor, to name just a few). Jacquet’s team was Europe’s first truly multi-cultural unit, which was a perfect reflection of the current French society.
It comprized players born in remote places, like Ghana, Algeria, Senegal, but united over a common cause – to bring the World Cup title to France., which they succeeded in doing in 1998 by beating holders Brazil 3-0.
Even though Jacquet decided to leave on a high, that triumph at the Stade France was not the end of the French dominance. Just two years later at the iconic De Kuip, Les Bleus managed to beat the Italians to the European title in the most dramatic fashion, equalizing in injury time, then winning it with an extra-time golden goal.
Roger Lemerre was at the helm then, but he was unable to help the team at the 2002 World Cup, where they failed to score a single goal and ended bottom of their group, becoming the first World Cup holder to fail so miserably.
Four years later in Germany France came so close again, but Zidane’s famous head-butt ended their hopes of beating Italy, who went on to win the World Cup on penalties. Success has been rare to come by for Les Bleus in the first decade of this century – even though they didn’t miss a single tournament, they were unable to progress past the group stage on three occasions.
Keeping that in mind, it hardly comes as a surprise that the World Cup winners of 1998 constitute the backbone of our French Top Eleven selection. Most of the choices for the Top Eleven squad were nobrainers – the likes of Barthez, Blanc, Deschamps, Zidane and Henry simply picked themselves.
Choosing Thierry’s striking partner, however, proved to be the most difficult task. Our choice for Top Eleven was Jean Pierre Papin, Europe’s 1991 Player of the Year, who was the undisputed top star at the beginning of the period. His form was fine for both his clubs (Marseille and AC Milan) and the national team (30 goals in 54 games, including 24 from 1990 to 1995).
Choosing the strikers for the Alternate XI was just as difficult, as there was no place for all of Benzema, Trezeguet and Cantona. Our choice was to leave the former Man Utd superstar out, because the other two had more success with Les Bleus.
France keeps on producing top class attacking players in other positions as well, so there was a lot to choose from in attacking midfield. Zidane is placed in a somewhat unorthodox position, to cover both the left wing and the playmaker position, while Franck Ribery is used on the wing, but as an inside forward, a position he has been successful in for France and Bayern.
The key dilemmas were in the full back positions, where France has lacked depth over entire the period. If Thuram was a certain on the right, and Lizarazu had a clear advantage on the other side of the pitch, it seemed unfair to give Evra and/or Sagnol a nod ahead of some other players further up on the pitch. This is why our Alternate XI uses the formation hardly ever used by the French team, a form of 3-2-3-2.
By doing that we can use two brilliant wingers – Pires and Ginola – with Youri Djorkaeff as the playmaker between them. This works on another level as well, since the three span over a period of 15 years.
One of the most difficult decisions had to be made in central midfield, with four simply brilliant players. Our choice was to create partnerships that would work well together, so Vieira has been paired with Deschamps in the Top Eleven team, while Makelele protects both Petit and the back three for the Alternate XI.
Looking at these two teams, we can only imagine what they would look like on pitch, had all the players been on top of their game at the same time. A frightening prospect, isn’t it?