How Do France's U-20s Finalists Compare with the Class of '97?
The first of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finalists were made known early Wednesday evening as France recorded a 2-1 win over Ghana to reach their first ever final at this age level.
While success isn't everything in youth football, and trophies or titles no guarantee of a successful senior career, a team which stands out technically and tactically surely gives a sign that at least some of the players have a bright future ahead.
With the current crop managing to reach the final in Turkey, comparisons can be drawn with France's class of 1997, which reached the quarterfinal stage in that year's competition, held in Malaysia.
World Youth Championships of 1997: France's Gems
Back in '97, France played out a group stage where they were beaten by Brazil before recording successive wins over South Korea and South Africa. Mexico awaited in the first knockout game, and were duly beaten by a goal to nil—but South American opposition proved France's undoing at that time, with Uruguay winning in the quarterfinals after a penalty shoot-out, following a 1-1 draw.
The French squad at that time was comprised almost entirely of home-based players, with only striker Nicolas Anelka, then of Arsenal, playing abroad. Already Anelka had featured in top-flight action by this stage, but he wasn't the only great hope of the country.
Monaco supplied no less than three well-known starlets in David Trezeguet, Philippe Christanval and a certain Thierry Henry. All three went on to play for France at World Cups at the senior level.
The defence also became notable for the talented players who grew from this tournament; Willy Sagnol won more than 50 caps for France at full international level, Mikael Silvestre wasn't far short of that total and William Gallas went most of the way toward a full century of caps.
All told, the France youth squad of 1997 paved the way for many trophy victories individually, and set in place the foundations for a national team that would go on to win the European Championship and the World Cup over the next few years, and reach another World Cup final in 2006.
This Year's Brightest Talent
Reputation often comes too quickly and too full of misgivings for talented youngsters, but some of the Franch squad this time around certainly look capable of pushing themselves toward the upper echelon of world footballers.
Lucas Digne at left-back is a very strong attacking talent; his recent move to Monaco will put him in even more spotlight but he still has plenty to work on defensively.
In the centre, Kurt Zouma and Samuel Umtiti look as though they could be a pairing for the national team for a decade. Strong, with good pace, good reading of the game and technical ability which bodes well for their preference of passing out from the back line, both defenders could go on to represent the national team in time.
Of course, there are one or two rather imposing figures in their path yet, not least of all a player who is just one year older than them and already a senior international in Raphael Varane.
But it's about contributing to a squad as well, and over the coming years, if both youngsters manage to get increased game time at club level, they could certainly figure in Didier Deschamps' thinking.
Paul Pogba of course needs no introduction in midfield, already starring for the Italian league winners Juventus, but Geoffrey Kondogbia might not be as well known to those who do not follow the fortunes of Sevilla in Spain's top flight.
A huge physical presence but with a calmness on the ball and a pleasing amount of vision and execution in the pass for a primarily defensive player, Kondogbia yet lacks consistency but has plenty of traits which mark him out as a potential top starter.
Elsewhere, Florian Thauvin, Jean-Christophe Bahebeck and Yaya Sanogo have shown flashes of ability, while goalkeeper Alphonse Areola is a quite marvellous young stopper who needs more game time over the next couple of seasons.
Most Likely to go on to Great Things?
It's difficult to look past Paul Pogba at this stage as the most promising of the entire crop, because he's already capped at the senior level and has already won a major league championship. It's not for nothing that Manchester United were hugely frustrated at losing him, when he refused to sign a new contract.
Digne will have his chance to shine over the coming seasons in a high-profile team, but Kondogbia might turn out to be the other who can prove a hit at the highest level.
His beastly presence, when at his best, means he can be a ball-winner, a quick turnover midfielder and a late-arrival in the opposition penalty box all in one. Such all-round midfielders can be exceptional young talents before settling into a more focused role later on in their careers, and Kondogbia also appears to have the tactical and technical know-how to be able to further himself that way in due course.
Do France Have a New Generation of Champions?
That's the million-dollar question. France didn't win the '97 World Youth Championships, but the competition proved a great grounding for successful promotions just a year later for the likes of Henry and Trezeguet.
Two years after that, Anelka was there too. By the 2006 World Cup, where France finished runners up, six graduates of the '97 squad were part of the main side.
That shows us that even the most successful campaign doesn't, and will likely never, lead to wholesale changes to the senior set-up, but if France can push four or five of these current youngsters to the full side, it will be seen as dramatic progress.
In the two central midfielders France have a pair of dead certs to make progress. Add the steel and power that Pogba and Kondogbia bring to the elegance and experience of the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Franck Ribery and more, and a more complete-looking squad might start to appear.
France are significantly blessed in their depth at central midfield, but two more talented youngsters adds continuity in that position for years to come, while other new young players make the gradual step up too.
The nation are not yet assured of qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and, even if they get there, success does not look extremely likely. But for the following European Championships, they could certainly be considered amongst the (extremely) early contenders.
Don't bet against two or three of this present under-20s squad making up a significant part of that side when it comes around.
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