When you talk football outside of a match day buzz, you will often see a trend of topics – There is controversy, there’s the inadvertent debate on the world’s best player and then, there are generations of footballers who have given their all for the sake of entertainment. Footballers, who have transcended being household names, touched our hearts and captured our imaginations. From the flying Magyars that never won a major trophy, to the latest and most boisterous Real Madrid – there is a great team for every era. Spain has had a parade of insane talent in the last couple of years, and so have Germany. Brazil is all about spicy mad football which looks like dancing and then there’s France.
France’s midfield is one to envy – even today, when they have many troubles and their players may not be cohesive (shoots glances at Nasri), they can call upon the services of Franck Ribery, Paul Pogba, Mathieu Valbuena, Blaise Matuidi, Morgan Schneiderlin and the like. A lot of people tend to think that Spain and Germany are the best ball players in the world but I sometimes like to disagree. See, I personally feel that France has had not just one or two – but three or more generations of fantastic midfielders; Midfielders that could bastardize the opposition or hypnotize them. Players of such technique and quality that they inevitably became legends, household names that touched hearts and warmed the cockles of football fanatics all the world over.
Leading the pack across generations would be Michel Platini. Looking at him now, the head of UEFA looks like he’s never kicked a ball in his lifetime – but the truth couldn’t be further away from that. A fantastic player with oodles of skill and a stinging shot, Platini is best remembered for his years of loyal service to the French national team and with Juventus as well. Then, there’s the mad defensive talent of Didier Deschamps – a man who currently leads the French national team. He was an intimidating presence in the center of the park and has the trophies with Chelsea and Juventus to show for it. Keeping on the theme of destroyers – we have the man who arguably re-shaped the role of a defensive midfielder in the modern game – Claude Makelele. The former Chelsea star was a player who redefined the role of the defensive midfielder and to this day, we are yet to see another in his mould. Then there were the children of controversy – Eric Cantona and Zinedine Zidane. The former had a well-documented mean streak and the latter had a meltdown at just the moment his team needed him most.
Of all these, perhaps, the stand out player for me is Zinedine Zidane. Often overlooked in the debates about the ‘world’s greatest player’ and shunned because of the way he ended his last game for France – Zizou was the pinnacle of France’s midfield production line. A first touch that made people shimmy their butts forward to get a better glimpse, a two-footed mastery of dribbling to take him past the defender, that bald head shining as he looked up for a team-mate and that foot, with barely any back lift, sending the ball careening in the direction of the goal. Zidane conducted himself throughout his career, bar one example, with grace and style. A man of very few words – he let his football do the talking and always put the team’s needs ahead of himself. A true man for the big occasion he is remembered fondly by fans of both Juventus and Real Madrid – and that is a big accomplishment.
If there were a comparison, some kind of barometer to measure midfield greatness – by an Opta or some other statistical standpoint – there would be no doubt France would lag behind. The sheer number of telling contributions made by a Spanish, German or Brazilian midfield in winning matches and titles is probably best overlooked as the way to measure success. If you look at it from the stand point of technique, from the moments that make you go ‘aaaaahhh f**k yes!!’ and ‘ooooh!’ as a football fan – then, at least on a personal level, France has got the rest beat. The technique, vision, audacity to play the ball on or beat the defender and the fantastic finishing or destroying of attacks all come alive when you see a French side playing. I do believe that a Dream XI of the last 50 years could have an entirely French midfield and if it did, I’d put more French players on the bench. Let me just list out some that might make the cut – Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Claude Makelele, Michel Platini, Didier Deschamps, Eric Cantona, Marcel Desailly and so many many more. Heck, you could form a whole XI of France midfield players with different attributes that are as good as many first teams today.
And that’s what makes me happy and sad about French football. They have that precocious talent – what with the Riberys, Nasris and the Pogbas – but they seem to have lost some of that grace. That almost French way of being – where they don’t talk much but when they do you fall in love. And it all began in 2006 when Materazzi made Zidane do the unthinkable and got him sent off. Somewhere, a nerve was tweaked in the French set up that it was okay, perhaps even good, to be the bad boy. Ribery and Benzema both had sex with an underage prostitute (a case which still runs today) and the less said about Samir Nasri’s attitude the better.
Sometimes you wonder where French football is heading. Paul Pogba is dominating the center of the park for Juventus like Zidane once did so many years back and Karim Benzema seems to be finally becoming the striker of great promise he always was at Olympique Lyon. Blaise Matuidi can draw parallels with Makelele or Vieria and his turn of pace is excellent as well as his eye for goal. But somehow, somewhere, you feel that this France side are yet to show that they are more than the sum of their individual parts. Brilliant individuals are abundant in many football teams but the truly great sides transcend this and showcase technique, guile and a dexterity that is almost other-worldly.
And this is a damn shame – that the beguiling, bewildering nature of French football has become marred by controversy, by players acting up and coaches losing control of the squad. Now, their mentors and predecessors are coming back. Zidane is coach of the B team at Real Madrid, Deschamps leads the national side and Platini is head of European football. They have gone on to inspire and now guide new minds to greater things. A France side with the talent to win it all is ready and willing – they just have to look behind them and the smiling faces of their predecessors will show them the way to glory!