France are a footballing powerhouse, even if they haven’t lived up to the heady standards of their continental neighbors Italy and Germany or that of the Spanish dawn that ruled much of the latter half of the last decade. France’s greatest triumph on the world stage remains the FIFA World Cup triumph in 1998, and while the promise of a resurgence in 2006 was abruptly extinguished with that infamous head-butt, the French have once begun to show us a glimmer of hope.
With some of France’s best talents eschewing the Ligue 1, to make their way to the Premier League, La Liga and the Serie A, Les Bleus have a distinct advantage when it comes to blooding their youth across the toughest battle grounds in Europe. From Zidane and Henry to Makalele and Blanc, French footballers have brought in a special blend of Southern European flair and Northern strategy.
In Les Espoirs, French for ‘The Hopes’, top-flight European clubs have a veritable petri dish from which to pick talent. Les Espoirs, of course, is the France national U-21 football team. As a national side, they have stumbled from one disappointment to the other, having failed to qualify for the U-21 UEFA European Championship since 2006, despite winning the U-20 FIFA World Cup against all odds. There are more than a few standouts in this stellar team, and some of the are currently already plying their trades with some of the biggest names in European club football.
The biggest defensive gem in France’s under-21 side is undoubtedly Aymeric Laporte . : that worthy custodian of the hallowed tradition set by previous greats Blanc, Thuram and Desailly. Standing 6’2″, Laporte is in the same mold as those icons, but is certainly a yard faster than they were at their prime. That flexibility had made him a favorite with former Athletic Bilbao manager Marcelo Bielsa, and his successor Ernesto Valverde. It isna t often a 21-year old is pivotal to his teama s fortunes, but if werena t for Laportea s genius Athletic Bilbao would not have finished with a Champions League spot for the first time in 15 years.
Jostling for space along with Laporte in Francea s burgeoning defensive ranks are Benjamin Mendy, and Jordan Amavi. Mendy plays for Marseille, while Amavi puts in his shift across the channel with Aston Villa. Bilbaoa s loss was Marseillea s gain, when Marcelo Bielsa signed as their manager; Mendy who had already impressed under the brief tenures of Elie Baup and Jose Anigo had struck gold with Bielsaa s appointment. Playing as a full-back, Mendy brings speed and a precision far beyond that expected of his years. It remains to be seen how well Mendy will perform in the light of Bielsaa s departure. The young Frenchman may be a golden nugget in Marseillea s side, but he may need a more stable club to truly thrive.
Also dealing with club woes is Kurt Zouma, who is inexplicably dealing with Chelseaa s sudden implosion in form. The former captain of the French U-21 team, the successor to John Terry has struggled with the vagaries of his day job. Last season, Zouma impressed with his few appearances, but this season has been a different ballgame altogether. It is to his credit that people expect him to perform at the level expected of a defensive stalwart, despite his being only 20 years old. The glowing comparisons to Marcel Desailly that now seem like a heavy crown, must inspire one of Chelseaa s youngest hopes to greater things. Zoumaa s involvement with U-21 side will likely be limited going forward, after receiving his first call up to the senior team by manager Didier Deschamps earlier this year.
Setting Francea s strike-force alight with their magic are twin threats S bastien Haller and Yassine Benzia. Haller currently plays for Dutch side Utrecht where he rose up the ranks from bit-part player on loan from Auxerre to Utrechta s player of the year award. With a phenomenal 11 goals in just 17 appearances, Haller is destined to continue to impress if he stays on track. Haller is likely to leave the Dutch side soon, and may choose to return to France with a stint in a top Ligue 1 side beckoning. His quick, direct style will endear him to the Premier League too should he choose to make the switch.
Benzia, on the other hand, has been hailed as the next Karim Benzema: not just for their similar-sounding last names, but also because of the similarity in their styles. Benziaa s had a leg up over Haller, by featuring with Lyon and Lille. He joined Lille on a 4-year contract, after transferring from Lyon. Top of his mind, will be ensuring that those comparisons to Benzema do not extend to a perceived lack of commitment that has plagued the Real Madrid man he seeks to emulate.