As the U-20 World Cup heads into its final stages, few teams are attracting attention quite like France.
Despite falling to the imperious Spaniards in the group stage and missing out on the top spot, the French have talent throughout their team and look likely to be genuine contenders as the tournament unfolds.
They struggled against the United States, managing only a 1-1 draw with the weakest team in the competition’s "Group of Death." However, in their opening game against Ghana, the French offense flourished.
During a terrific 15-minute spell, the French put the Black Satellites to the sword. Central midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia opened the scoring, before Yaya Sanogo and Jean-Christophe Bahebeck heaped woe onto the West Africans.
They rediscovered their offensive capacity in their second-round bout with hosts Turkey.
Despite encountering a partisan crowd in Gaziantep on the July 2, the French demonstrated tremendous composure and demolished the home side.
The same trio as before, Kondogbia, Bahebeck and Sanogo all found the net, before Jordan Veretout added a fourth in the latter stages.
Sinan Bakış bagged a late consolation for the Turks, but the damage had been done. No one in attendance doubted the superiority of the French.
Progression to the quarter final, where Uzbekistan lie in wait tomorrow, will doubtless have been met by misty-eyed nostalgia back in France.
This is a nation that, over the years, has demonstrated an immense affinity for football’s youth competitions. They have tasted success, encountered glory and are well aware of the benefits a triumphant youth side can bring to the national set-up.
During the '90s, the French youth side were present in six finals. Between 1993 and 1999 they were absent for only one. The pinnacle came in 1997 when an exciting team containing Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet beat Portugal 2-1 in the final—both men would go on to claim World Cup winners' medals the following summer.
Despite a period of decline around the turn of the Millennium, Les Bleuets came back stronger than ever in the middle of the last decade. Between 2004 and 2007 they won an unprecedented four consecutive Toulon Tournaments, going one better than their dominant period in the 1980s, when defeat in the final to Bulgaria in ’86 disrupted a hegemony that would have stretched for six years.
It is no surprise that successful eras in youth competitions have preceded periods of glory for senior national sides.
Italy, Bulgaria and Brazil, for example, have all witnessed the progress and maturation of youthful generations who have gone on to find success within the senior set-ups.
This youthful France generation has all the makings of a classic collection of players, could success this summer provide a spark for another golden era in the nation’s football history?
An immediate strength is the central midfield.
Paul Pogba has had a terrific maiden season with Juventus since leaving Manchester United and looks to have all the tools required of an elite box-to-box midfielder. Alongside him, Geoffrey Kondogbia is a solid foil.
The Sevilla man possesses some excellent physical attributes and has demonstrated his attacking prowess with goals already in this tournament.
The pair provide an energetic and dynamic heart to the French side, with the technical nous to thrive in the upper echelons of the game.
The full-backs have also been met with praise.
Lucas Digne has long been a prodigious name whispered in the exalted corners of the French game, and his influence from the left back position has once again been evident during this tournament. On the opposite flank, Dimitri Foulquier doesn’t share the high profile of his compatriot, but offers a similarly menacing threat from the wide back position.
Either could prompt a challenge for their opposite numbers in the Uzbekistan side and could go on to become key players in the French national side in the future.
Forward Yaya Sanogo also deserves a mention, particularly as he is a player who will become much more familiar to a wider audience in the near future.
A product of the famed Auxerre academy, Sanogo will join Abou Diaby and Bacary Sagna in making the move from the Stade de l’Abbé-Deschamps to North London as he joins Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side.
He becomes the latest in a long line of players to swap the French league for the EPL, and has all the raw materials to make a major impact in the future.
During the tournament thus far, his technical ability has been plain to see, while his speed and physique are hard to ignore.
He may be injury-prone, but Sanogo has all the capabilities to make the step up to the French senior squad if his development continues—this tournament is proving to be a valuable formative experience for him.
France may not win this tournament—teams like Spain and Ghana will surely pose immense challenges in the coming games—regardless, Les Bleus fans can be optimistic in the promise that populates their U-20 team.
Surely some of these players will fail to make the grade, but this squad is laced with enough talent that French fans can look forward to improving fortunes in the future.
Things should begin with victory over Uzbekistan.