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Platini, Vieira and the 10 Best French International Midfielders of All Time

Jonathan JohnsonFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2013

Platini, Vieira and the 10 Best French International Midfielders of All Time

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    France has a long tradition of producing some phenomenally gifted midfielders, whether they are of the attacking, defensive or wide variety.

    Historically, as one of the greatest exporters of domestic talent, France boasts some of world football’s luminaries amongst its former international stars.

    Michel Platini and Patrick Vieira are two of those. However, they arguably are not even the most gifted players to have graced the field en bleu, even though they are two of Les Tricolores' most instantly recognisable names.

    In this list are some of the players who have helped to shape the landscape of French football, and, of course, there are some important candidates who also missed out.

    I have tried to select the players that best represented France domestically as well as internationally. But such was the level of talent that the majority of this list plied their trade abroad for the best part of their career.

    Here is my take on Platini, Vieira and France’s eight best international midfielders.

Michel Platini

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    A three-time Ballon d’Or winner consecutively (1983-1985) and a 1984 European Championship winner on home soil, to name a few accolades, Platini is one of France’s most celebrated football icons.

    Now UEFA president, Platini’s international career spanned three World Cups (1978, 1982 and 1986). He also holds the record for the highest number of goals scored in a European Championship (1984) with nine goals despite only appearing in one edition.

    Platini rose to prominence with Nancy and Saint-Etienne domestically before moving to Juventus, where he enjoyed his spell at the pinnacle of the European game.

    A four-year spell as coach of the French national team followed in 1988 to continue his association with Les Bleus, but the Joeuf native will be best remembered for his role at the tip of the "carré magique" (magic square).

    With 41 goals, Platini held the honour of being France’s all-time top goal scorer until Thierry Henry overtook him in 2007.

Patrick Vieira

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    Vieira was a hybrid of the attacking flair that France’s is capable of producing in players and the muscular, physical presence that they have championed over the years with a number of top ball-winning midfielders.

    The 107-time-capped French international of Senegalese descent was the perfect blend of both elements. Brutally strong and athletic, yet deceptively technical and a superb passer of the ball, Vieira was the complete package as a midfielder.

    A World Cup (1998) and European Championship (2000) winner, Vieira is best recognised for his time in the English Premier League with Arsenal, where he was voted into the league’s team of the decade.

    Having started his career with Cannes, Vieira then had spells With AC Milan, the Gunners, Juventus, Inter Milan and finally Manchester City.

    Now Football Development Executive at Manchester City, Vieira’s international career will be best remembered for Euro 2000 victory and his spells as captain between Zinedine Zidane’s retirements.

Zinedine Zidane

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    France fans affectionately know him as “Zizou,” and he will undoubtedly go down in history as France’s greatest-ever international midfielder.

    Zidane was a three-time FIFA World Player of the Year and a one-time Ballon d’Or winner individually.

    Internationally, he won the World Cup with France in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000, when he was named player of the tournament, and was close to winning the 2006 World Cup, too, before acrimoniously clashing with Italy’s Marco Materazzi.

    Like Vieira, Zidane too started his career with Cannes before moving to Bordeaux. Spells with Juventus and Real Madrid followed, as did a plethora of club and individual awards.

    However, French fans will always remember Zidane best for his time with the national team, where he was the most influential player of his generation.

    The Marseille native netted 31 goals in 104 appearances for Les Bleus before hanging his boots up permanently in 2006. 

Didier Deschamps

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    Perhaps not the most skillful of players, but certainly the most committed, the now-France coach will go down in history as the captain of the 1998 World Cup-winning and Euro 2000-winning France side.

    First called up by French legend Platini, Deschamps’ international career was launched in the early '90s when French football was still struggling to emerge from the shadow of Platini’s glorious era of the 1980s.

    He led France to the semi-finals of Euro 96, before the double triumphs of 1998 and 2000 that brought down the curtain on a glittering international career.

    Deschamps amassed 103 caps for Les Bleus, scoring four goals, and spent time with Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseille, Juventus, Chelsea and Valencia before retiring in 2001.

Claude Makelele

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    So good was Makelele that they named a position after him. If Vieira was the ideal hybrid between a player like Zidane and a hard-working, physical player, then that physical player was certainly Makelele.

    The Zaire-born French international was so instrumental on the international scene that he was called out of retirement in 2004 the help France qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

    He received 71 caps for his country yet never enjoyed the success that his ability deserved, having missed the golden generation of 1998-2001. He first represented Les Bleus in an international tournament in 2002 (although he was in the 1996 Olympic team).

    At club level, Makelele started at Brest before traveling to Nantes, Marseille, Celta Vigo, Real Madrid, Chelsea and finally back to France with Paris Saint-Germain. 

Raymond Kopa

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    Kopa was an integral part of the French team of the 1950s and is considered by French football experts and historians as one of the greatest players in the country’s history, and certainly the best of his generation.

    In a career that spanned 18 years, he played for Angers, Stade de Reims (twice) and Real Madrid, and was the third ever recipient of the Ballon d’Or.

    Capped 45 times for France, he scored 18 goals and helped Les Bleus to finish third in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.

    His partnership with Just Fontaine at Reims is still considered one of the best double acts in French football today, despite the exploits of the likes of Platini, Zidane and Vieira.

Emmanuel Petit

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    Perhaps not as widely recognised as the likes of Vieira, Makelele or Deschamps in defensive midfield, Petit was a World Cup winner in 1998 and a member of the successful Euro 2000-winning side as well.

    He made 63 appearances for Les Bleus, scoring six goals, but is a national hero for scoring the third and final goal of the 3-0 World Cup final triumph over Brazil in 1998. It was also the 1000th goal that the French national team had scored and their last World Cup goal of the 20th century.

    His career included spells with Monaco, Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea.

Didier Six

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    A nomadic player, Six still managed to earn 52 caps for France, scoring 13 goals despite playing for 13 different sides.

    He played for Les Bleus at the 1978 and 1982 World Cups, but famously won the 1984 European Championship on home soil alongside Platini.

    Now the national team coach of Togo, Six is best remembered for being a part of Platini and France’s “magic square”-inspired 1984 triumph. 

Christian Karembeu

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    He of New Caledonian origin and crazy dreadlocked hair, Karembeu’s international spanned a decade following his debut in 1992.

    Karembeu is best remembered for his appearances in the 1998 World Cup, when he helped France to secure the trophy in their own tournament. He was also in the squad that triumphed two years later at Euro 2000, but by then had become a squad player.

    He received 53 caps for Les Bleus and scored one goal. His career took him from Nantes to Sampdoria, Real Madrid, Middlesbrough, Olympiacos and finally Bastia.

Jean Tigana

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    Tigana represented France 52 times in his career, rising to prominence as a member of the famed midfield quartet of Platini, Luis Fernandez and Alain Giresse in the 1980s. In those 52 appearances, his solitary goal came against Hungary in the 1986 World Cup.

    In terms of playing style, he was a box-to-box midfielder, famed for his work rate, stamina and ball-carrying abilities. Despite being stationed as a defensive midfielder, he would move into attack and arguably served as an early prototype of Vieira’s eventual role a decade later.

    Having started his career with Toulon, Tigana played for Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseille in a career spanned 16 years.

Honourable Mentions

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    Of course a number of top talents did not make it into the list, but that does not mean that they were not in contention.

    David Ginola and Robert Pires are two players who graced the national side with contrasting fortunes but will be remembered as some of Les Bleus’ best all-time exports.

    Franck Ribery too looks like he will fall into the same category as Ginola, tremendously talented but unable to fully recognise his potential in international colours.

    Samir Nasri and Yoann Gourcuff too arguably could have made the list on talent, but have nothing to show for it with Les Bleus.

    Luis Fernandez and Alain Giresse also deserve a mention as the other two sides of the "carré magique" alongside Platini and Tigana.

Who Is Next?

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    Blaise Matuidi of the current crop of talent is showing the most potential in terms of becoming an international legend, but today’s generation of stars is a far cry from the likes of Platini’s era and the Vieira and Zidane-inspired sides of the 1990s and early 2000s.

    Watch this space as Paris Saint-Germain’s irrepressible midfielder attempts to emulate some of France’s best that populate this list, but he will need some help from his teammates.

    Under the guidance of legendary midfielder Deschamps at international level and Makelele with PSG at club level, Matuidi is in good hands.

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