France Football Team
No strangers to the international sporting arena, football is a true tour de force in France. Otherwise known as Les Bleus, the French side won the World Cup on home soil in 1998 and have also snatched two European Championship victories.
Boasting some of the most creative and artistic players in the history of the game, such as Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona, Michael Platini and Zinadine Zidane, it is no surprise that the team are both respected and feared across the globe.
In the Beginning
On May 1 1904, France kicked off their first international football match against Belgium. With a 3-3 scoreline, the country would need to wait another 26 years before seeing the national team compete in the first World Cup. Unfortunately the experience was not a pleasant one as, despite their first ever World Cup goal courtesy of Lucien Laurent, the French team exited the tournament after a disappointing first round defeat.
As hosts of the 1936 World Cup, France automatically qualified but left the competition after a second round loss against Italy. Indeed, it would not be until two decades later that France would truly make their mark on the international scene. The development of the game in the country saw the emergence of world class players such as the record breaking Just Fontaine. With his remarkable 13 goal haul, France would enjoy a place in the 1958 World Cup semi finals against world leaders and cup winners, Brazil.
Despite succumbing to the irresistible South Americans in that contest, France nevertheless went on to celebrate a third place position after winning the play off match against defending World Cup champions, West Germany.
Second decline and second renaissance
Unfortunately the 1958 showing proved the exception as another two decades passed before the team were injected with a renewed energy following the inclusion of new players for the tournament in 1978. Even then, although the team had unquestionably improved (inspired by new midfielder Michael Platini), France exited the tournament in the first round and needed to wait another four years before the French team would be given another chance to demonstrate their class in the World Cup.
They eventually did so by finishing in fourth place in 1982, only falling foul of West Germany in a controversial semi final. The defeat was made more painful as, having made a spectacular 3-0 comeback, their bid ended with a penalty shoot out. Aside from this ultimate disappointment, it is still recalled as one of the most memorable games in the history of the tournament.
Building on this performance, two years later, a promising French team finally enjoyed its first international success with a prestigious Euro 84 win before also taking an Olympic Gold. The European Championship triumph was particularly significant and reflected the ever increasing stature of Platini. Indeed, the inimitable Frenchman’s dominance was such that, of the team’s 14 goals, 9 of them were scored by Platini (including the famous extra time winner against Portugal in the semi-final). As such, in 1986, coach Henri Michel and Michael Platini led the strongest French team yet to the World Cup.
A New Start
Whilst the Platini-inspired players enjoyed another improved performance, they took a third place team home from Mexico following another defeat against the West German side. Alongside this similarly impressive team showing, the individual performance of Platini was again remarkable, as alongside Johann Cruyff and Marco Van Basten, he became one of only three players to have picked up the most prestigious Ballon d’Or (or Golden Ball) three times.
The end of the 80’s saw the transition of Platini to team manager and the French welcomed a new era with emerging players, such as a fiesty Eric Cantona, also seemingly set to make their mark on the international scene. However, the new French side unexpectedly failed to qualify for Euro 88 and continued to suffer a series of losses in the 1992 European Championship. It was hoped that new coach, Gerard Houllier, would bring about a new dynamic in the team and it would spell a more successful future for the team.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The team failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and the new coach resigned shortly after. However, there was greater optimism across the nation with the introduction of Zinedine Zidane into the international game and it was hoped that this would not lead to further disappointment in Euro 96.
Under the new direction of Aime Jacquet, a new style of play was introduced. Capitalising on Zidane’s natural creativity and unrivalled flair on the football field and, controversially omitting favourites such as former captain Cantona and David Ginola, the team qualified. It would be the beginning of an impressive run, which eventually ended in the semi-finals.
The Golden Era
A period of success for the French team followed, starting with the 1998 World Cup, now some 32 nations strong. Led by Aime Jacquet, France beat Italy in the quarter finals before celebrating a success in the semi final against Croatia. An unprecedented success for the French side culminated in a spectacular 3-0 win over Brazil at the Stade de France in Paris.
Assisted by two goals from Zidane, the French enjoyed a defiant victory on home turf against the reigning champions. Celebrating the win with 500,000 French fans spilling onto the Parisian streets, it symbolised a new beginning for Les Bleus.
Jacquet amicably departed company with the team shortly after and a newly appointed Roger Lemerre led France to another monumental victory two years later in Euro 2000. A golden goal from David Trezeguet in the final would seal a French victory against the Italians and the French team would be the first team to hold the two greatest trophies in the game simultaneously since West Germany in 1976.
It would also be a memorable year for individuals, with Zidane accepting one of his three World Player of the Year titles and France officially becoming the best team in the world. Unfortunately, their newly elevated status would be short lived.
A sharp decline
Suffering an early blow with the thigh injury of Zidane, which removed any chance of his inclusion in the early stages of the next World Cup, the French squad made their way to Korea/Japan in 2002. However, the defending champions suffered a huge embarrassment after leaving the tournament in the first round, following a 1-0 loss against Senegal.
Whilst it proved to be an exceptional start for the opposition and newcomers to the World Cup stage, the experienced French side suffered the indignity of scoring no goals during the remainder of the qualifying games against Denmark and Uruguay. A devastating disappointment for France, it ultimately led to the sacking of Lemerre. This disaster was soon followed by another as, despite their best efforts, the side suffered another ignominious loss, this time to Greece, in the quarter-finals of Euro 2004.
Regardless of the appointment of new coach and former international player, Raymond Domenech, the French continued to lose faith in its national team after a series of erratic performances against less prominent teams in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers. Sitting in a table against teams which France should have comfortably beaten, the country failed to display any of the form that had led them to glory before.
Adopting a unique managerial style, the self-confessed tarot card reader and part-time astrologer Domenech should have known more than most that a potentially bleak future lay ahead for the French when their world ranking rapidly fell from two to nine. Now lacking the support of the French media and public, emergency measures were called for and retired French legends Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram made an unexpected return onto the international scene to avoid another shock early exit.
It worked. After celebrating an unexpected win against Spain, France met favourites Brazil in the quarter finals and an outstanding performance saw the team secure a place in the semi-final against Portugal. A successful penalty from a 34 year old Zidane took the team to a final against Italy. Despite a hard fought game, France eventually suffered a 5-3 loss in the deciding penalty shoot out.
Nevertheless, France regained the respect of their country following a series of impressive wins and Zidane once again proved himself to be one of the greatest players in the world. He would also become one of the most controversial players in the game after seeing a red card for headbutting Italian Marco Matterazi.
The incident would divide a country – partly wanting to support one of the most exciting players in the history of the national game and partly appalled by such a public display of anger. For some, the blame of France’s ultimate defeat in the World Cup 2006 fell at the feet of the dismissed player. Although it is is not known what prompted the uncharacteristic reaction, Zidane still picked up the coveted Golden Ball Award for his contribution to the tournament and it would truly be folly to allow that to outweigh his truly remarkable contribution to the sport.
A Nation Divided
It hasn’t only been Zidane creating unrest in the French camp. He was just one of many part Algerian players and celebrated footballers under the scrutiny of key decision makers in the game and football fans.
Since Raoul Diagne became the first black player to join the French side in 1931, the country has been proudly represented by numerous racial minority players, such as Senegal born Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele, who hails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
However, in 2000, football supporters could be heard taking exception to self professed New Caledonian and French international, Christian Karembeu, during a game against Scotland.
His selection was rebuked by National Front Leader Jean Marie Pen and angered some fans after the midfielder refused to sing the national anthem following the mistreatment of his uncles during the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931. An integrated national team striving for success and acceptance now created difficulties.
Les Bleus continued to celebrate and field a multicultural team and, in 2001, their first match against Algeria was orchestrated and hosted at the Stade de France. However, an unstoppable pitch invasion by angry Algerian supporters forced the game to be abandoned after 77 minutes and a 4-1 scoreline in favour of the home team.
Ongoing arguments against team selections resulted in a campaign to combat racism in 2005. It was fronted by Thierry Henry, himself part-Guadelope and part Martinique despite competing for France. It bore the logo Stand Up, Speak Up.
In 2006, the first player from Indian descendency joined the French team. Vikash Dhorasoo would join 16 other racial minority players as the side faced increased pressure over the absence of white footballers in the squad.
Zinadine Zidane’s sending off in the World Cup of the same year reawakened questions of racism and, for some, the incident with Italian Marco Materazzi represented racial differences evident even between two neighbouring countries.
France’s bid to take part in Euro 2008 started during the qualifying rounds in 2006. With wins against Georgia, Italy, Faroe Islands, Lithuania and the Ukraine, France’s qualification campaign was made uncertain by two unexpected defeats courtesy of Scotland. Following a helpful Italian victory over the Scottish, the French avoided an essential win against the Ukraine and can now look forward to the impending trip to Austria.
The team will also be looking to secure a place in the 2010 World Cup finals when they face Romania, Serbia, Lithuania, Austria and Faroe Islands in the qualifying rounds.
- World Cup Winners: 1998
- UEFA European Championships Winners: 1984, 2000
- Olympic football tournament finalists: 1984
- FIFA Confederations Cup: 2001, 2003
Facts and Statistics
- Highest FIFA Ranking: No. 1 (2001-2002)
- Most Capped Individual: Lilian Thuram (135)
- Record Goalscorer: Thierry Henry (43 goals in 96 matches)
- Biggest Loss: 17-1 (versus Denmark, 1908)
- Biggest Victory: 10-0 (versus Azerbaijan, 1994)