5 Greatest France Players of All Time
It’s staggering to think that come July, it will have been 16 years since France lifted the World Cup on home soil. Even now, those images of Didier Deschamps lifting the FIFA World Cup trophy high above his head in the middle of the partisan Stade de France crowd are still iconic.
This summer in Brazil, the current crop of French talent have the chance to become French footballing heroes. After a less than convincing qualification process, the tremendous come-back win over Ukraine in November has the nation right behind them once more.
None of the current squad are ready to be classed as one of France’s Greatest Players of All Time, but if they can inspire Les Bleus to victory in South America, the likes of Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema or Mamadou Sakho could very well carve themselves a place on the list.
5. Lillian Thuram (1994-2008: 142 Caps, 2 Goals)
Later in his career he was asked to play the role of the experience central defender, but it was as one of football’s first modern-day full-backs that he captured France’s imagination. He would play internationally up until 2008, and he leads the all-time appearance list with 142 caps for his country. However, it was in 1998 that he was at his glorious best.
Thuram was a no-nonsense defender, doing the simple things well. He never appeared rushed, never panicked and he read the game with a studied perfection. It was these qualities that helped him play for France at the highest level for 15 years.
Thuram’s greatest moment came in the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup in France. Croatia was the surprise side of the tournament, and the definite dark horses to go all the way, Thuram had other ideas.
With his side a goal down, the right-back became a national hero, bombing forward to score both goals, the only two international goals of his career. For both strikes he used his defensive prowess and strength to win the ball back deep in the Croatian half; the second was a beautiful curling shot with his left-foot, a goal that will remain forever in French football folklore.
4. Just Fontaine (1953-1960: 21 Caps, 30 Goals)
Easily one of the greatest strikers of all time and a player who will live long in both memory and record books. His 13 goals during the 1958 World Cup remains to this day the record for most goals scored in a tournament. During that tournament he single-handedly destroyed the reigning champions West Germany, scoring four in France’s 6-3 victory in the third-place play-off.
The Stade de Reims striker had only played five times in five years for Les Bleus before that tournament, with only one international goal in 53 months to his name.
However, Fontaine was the original penalty box striker, and his 34 goals in 26 league games had led Reims to a league and cup double, securing the forward's place in France’s World Cup squad.
The rest is history. The beautifully two-footed player would leave his mark on world football, with his goals helping France finish third in 1958. The tournament would be remembered for two things: Pele, part of the all-conquering Brazil side that lifted the trophy, and the 13 goals scored by Just Fontaine; not the worst company to be named beside.
3. Thierry Henry (1997-2010: 123 Caps, 51 Goals)
With the decorated and illustrious club career that Henry enjoyed, it’s easy to forget how important he was for the French national side.
At only 20 years old he finished France’s top scorer with three goals as they won the World Cup in 1998. He would repeat this feat two years later, again scoring three times as Les Bleus won the European Championships, beating Italy 2-1 in the final, a game in which Henry was named Man of the Match.
His international history is then somewhat bogged down in the mediocrity of the sides that failed at numerous international tournaments post-Euro 2000.
His 51st and last international goal came from the penalty spot against Austria at the Stade de France in a 3-1 victory. No one suspected that it would be Henry’s last goal but after the controversial handball incident in the play-off against Ireland, the forward would only feature as a substitute that summer as France disgracefully bowed out of 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
His second half substitute appearance in the final group game against South Africa was a sad way for Henry to end his international career. He is France’s all-time leading goal-scorer, and the second-most-capped player after Lillian Thuram. France may not have been as successful during the prime of Henry’s career, but there is no doubt they would have been considerably worse without him.
2. Michel Platini (1976-1987: 72 Caps, 41 Goals)
To most modern day football fans, the image they have of Platini is the man in a suit. They see Platini as the outspoken UEFA president who seems destined to replace Sepp Blatter as the head of FIFA.
In France there is a different image: the vision of beauty and grace, the moments of beautiful control, the flashes of brilliance as he waved his right-leg to devastating effect.
This is the man who guided France to their first ever international trophy, destroying the opposition as France won the 1984 European Championships.
He scored nine goals in five matches as France dismissed anyone who dare challenge them. He was the complete midfielder: His vision to pick out a pass was second to none, he was as deadly in front of goal as any striker—scoring 41 times for France—and is considered one of the best free-kick takers of his time.
Everything he did on the pitch was minimalist but deadly: Why take two touches when one is enough, before weaving through the opposition and providing the killer touch? You don’t become a three-time Ballon d’Or winner by wearing a suit; you win them by being one of the greatest footballers of all time.
1. Zinedine Zidane (1994-2006: 108 Caps, 31 Goals)
Zidane’s international career is a magnificent tale of three headers and two World Cup finals. It will always be a disappointment that his playing days ended in controversy, but he was always a player who walked the fine line between his genius and his dark side.
In 1998 most of the world was still in love with the samba beat of the Brazilians, but the final of that World Cup will always be the Zidane Final. His two majestic headers in the first half lifted the Stade de France high into the dark Parisian sky and captured the imagination of the watching world.
Just before the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin, Zidane was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. His performances had carried a somewhat average French side all the way through to face Italy in the final. His amazing display against Brazil in the quarter-final turned back the clock; it was the return of the Zidane that everyone had fallen in love with eight years previously.
After scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot, it was Zidane’s last ever header that would end his career on a low note. The player saw red and head-butted Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the chest. He was shown a straight red card and the image of Zidane, head down, walking past the World Cup trophy is a difficult one to forget.
Two World Cup finals, three goals, one penalty and a red card: it’s a record that most international footballers would envy. He was not only a magician with the ball at his feet, but his unpredictability made him a compelling figure throughout his career. It is his position in shaping the history of French football that makes him Les Bleus’ greatest ever player.