The world is full of unexplained mysteries: Where do crop circles come from? Does the Loch Ness Monster exist? What on earth happened to those ships in the Bermuda Triangle? And why over the past seven seasons has Franck Ribery’s form been frustratingly better for Bayern Munich than for France? Before we get in a boat to search the depths of Loch Ness, let’s delve a little deeper into the enigma that is Bayern’s French winger. It will be a lot cheaper for a start.
At the ripe old age of 31, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil could possibly be the last time we see Franck Ribery at an international tournament. He could of course continue on and represent his country at the 2016 European Champions in France, but at 33 he may have simply had enough by then, and the success of his club career compared to his time playing for France could lead to an international retirement that helps to prolong life in the Bundesliga or wherever his next stop may be.
Right now Ribery’s international career is not going to be remembered fondly when in 30 or 40 years from now, people sit down to regale their grandchildren with stories of the French teams of old. In all honesty it will probably become nothing more than a pit-stop in between the success of 1998 and the development of the exciting youngsters currently coming through the ranks.
As it stands, the current crop of French internationals are still trying to banish the memories of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Ribery, amongst others, massively underperformed. Then the team collectively chose to strike, and no matter who instigated it, no one came out if it well, especially Ribery, who received a three-game ban for his role in the whole affair.
In Germany he has been able to share the burden of bad performances with his other international teammates, but for les Bleus there is an expectation that he should be able to rise above the malaise, and lead the team forward. During the 2010 World Cup, Ribery dropped down to the level of his teammates and France had no shining light to look up to.
That’s not to say that the failures of the current French national team are only down to the performances of Ribery, but it is clear to see that there are definitely two versions of the winger: The player you see week in, week out in the Bundesliga and the one that shows only glimpses of brilliance for les Bleus.
Ribery’s first appearance on the international stage came at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and beside the bigger names of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane, the Marseille midfielder did enough to spark excitement amongst the French fans.
Raymond Domenech’s side may not have been the best in Germany, but after Ribery set up Vieira for the opening goal against Togo, qualification to the last 16 was all but secured. Then in the last 16 it was Ribery again who came to save his country, equalising against Spain after David Villa had given his side the lead from the spot.
Ribery cut in from the right, making an excellent penetrating run that was spotted by Vieira, he played him in with the perfect pass and Ribery showed superb skill and pace by rounding Iker Casillas before placing the ball over the line.
That burst of excellence from Ribery was the first such moment that he had shown for his country. Fans of Marseille had been enjoying flashes of Ribery magic since he joined from Galatasaray on a free in 2005, and 12 months later the Bundesliga would get to enjoy it too, but it would cost Bayern Munich €25 million.
Before his move to Turkey, Ribery had enjoyed an excellent spell at FC Metz. The Boulogne-born winger had shown tremendous dribbling ability, taking on players at will and creating numerous chances for his teammates. It was a surprise that no one in France could match the €2.5 million bid from Galatasaray, and it seemed that one of Ligue 1’s great young talents had fallen under the radar. However, his unhappy spell in Istanbul turned into a prosperous move for OM when the French giants than sold him on for a hefty profit.
Legendary German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld was in charge when Ribery arrived from Marseille in the summer of 2007, and it took him the best part of two months to properly find his feet in Germany. Although not previously known as a goalscorer, he managed just one strike in his first nine games, but then once he settled he exploded, scoring nine times in the subsequent 18 games.
Bayern Munich would lift the league and cup double and Ribery would score 20 goals in just 46 games. This was a great return for a midfielder who had never scored more than 12 goals in any season. He finished the 2007/08 season being voted Bundesliga Footballer of the Year by German sports journalists, beating national team captain Michael Ballack into second place.
Hitzfeld left after that season and Bayern and Ribery struggled during the Jurgen Klinsmann/Louis van Gaal era. In fact we wouldn’t see the best of Ribery again until the permanent appointment of Jupp Heynckes in 2011.
Meanwhile, his career for France hadn’t hit the heights that 2006 had promised.
France were poor in the 2008 European Championships; a lot had been expected of Ribery going into tournament, but an early injury against Italy saw him limp off after just 10 minutes, his tournament over. France’s was too—victory over Italy would have seen Raymond Domenech’s side knock out the Azzuri and qualify for the quarter-finals, but the removal of Ribery seemed to knock all hope of winning out of French sails.
Under Heynckes, Ribery played some of the best football of his career. His performances in both the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons inspired Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title and two Champions League finals, culminating in setting up the winning goal for Arjen Robben as they beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1 at Wembley. Ribery’s play had been so impressive that he was one of the contenders for the 2013 Ballon d’Or. He would ultimately lose out to Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, but to be mentioned in the same breath as Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a great honour, and no more than the Frenchman deserved.
His excellent spell at Bayern also sparked a good run of form for France. In the friendly matches before Euro 2012, it finally looked like the national team was about to see the very best of one of their most talented players. In wins over Iceland, Serbia and Estonia, Ribery scored three times in the space of nine days.
The link-up play between Ribery, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri was an absolute joy to watch at times and it looked like Coach Laurent Blanc had finally cracked the Ribery conundrum. The goal against Iceland was his first since 2009, and France would go into the tournament in Poland and Ukraine full of confidence.
Unfortunately for France, once it came to the actual tournament, Ribery looked frustrated and lacking in his usual drive and determination. Their opponents double-teamed him, looking to contain and limit his opportunities on the ball. It worked to perfection and although you could see he was trying to make thing happen, he just couldn’t do enough to influence the games in the way he has for Bayern Munch.
France’s opponents had worked out that if you stop Ribery, you all but stop any threat from les Bleus. Something that just isn’t possible at Bayern, you double-team Ribery and there is always another two or three players that can hurt you in the same manner.
In September 2013 during an interview with Reuters, Ribery gave the biggest clue to what stopped him performing the same way for both club and country.
"What I've been living at Bayern is completely different. At Bayern, we never ask ourselves questions," he told a news conference at France's training facility in Clairefontaine.
"With France, when a player misses, he loses confidence, he is afraid of being criticised," he said. "But we'll try to make everyone regain confidence, lift the pressure."
Ribery, who is one of France's most experienced players, also hinted there was less quality in their squad since the international retirement of big-name players like Thierry Henry.
"Maybe we just don't have the same kind of players. We all know the quality of the Bayern players. France have a lot of new players, some have come and gone, some have been injured, some have played less with their club," he said.
"I noticed that in Belgium," he added, referring to last month's 0-0 friendly draw.
"I sometimes had to tell players not to try a three-metre pass but a 10 or 15-metre pass, to break through the defence, to put some speed in our play," he said.
"There are some things that we don't do, that we don't dare doing like long crosses, while at Bayern, these are just automatic things," he added.
It is hard to argue with anything the Bayern Munich winger said. For France, both in international competition and domestically, the pace of the game is much slower. You can see with France that when Ribery receives the ball there isn’t the same injection of pace in his teams’ movement. All too often the opposition is allowed to retreat back before France can mount a counter-attack.
The same cautious approach is still a huge part of the football played in Ligue 1. You only need to look at the soon-to-be champions, Paris Saint-Germain, to see the methodical passing style that Ribery spoke of. Very few teams play with pace, width and the direct style of Bayern Munich, so when Ribery joins his international teammates, the style just isn’t suited to the sort of play in which Ribery can excel.
However, there is hope for the Bayern Munich star. It may have only been for two games, but in the recent play-off win over Ukraine and the friendly victory over Netherlands, France played with a sense of urgency and pace on the counter-attack. Both of their goals against Netherlands in the Stade de France came on the counter. The movement looked sharper and crisper, and it seemed to suit the players on the pitch much more than the normal languid style.
In the past there has been talk of player’s egos getting in the way of performances, some fans saying that the players showed a lack of commitment on the international stage, only caring about their club careers and being driven by money to succeed.
Ribery has been subject to this kind of criticism every time he steps onto the pitch wearing the famous Les Bleus jersey. The constant criticism from the French football media, plus the Zahia Dehar escort scandal, put heaps of pressure on him every time he represented France. If the winger didn’t care, it would have been quite easy for him to call time on his France career and concentrate on playing for Bayern.
Not once did the 31-year-old shirk his responsibilities, and now it finally looks like France will try to play in a manner that will get the best out of his abilities.
If Didier Deschamps continues to let his side play in this new positive manner going into the World Cup this summer, it could finally be the moment that Ribery grabs the international spotlight and gives the French public a tournament they can be proud and tell their grandchildren about.