After almost a year away, the Greatest Ever series is back!
In a special series for the upcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, I will be looking at the very best players from some of the World Cup's most successful countries.
This 28th edition of the Greatest Ever series looks at the top 15 players to have played for the winners of the 1998 World Cup, France.
15. Jean Tigana (1980-88, 52 caps, 1 goal)
Narrowly edging the likes of Emmanuel Petit, Bixente Lizarazu, and teammate Alain Giresse onto this list is the gangly midfielder Jean Tigana. Tigana was a vital part of the "Magic Square" midfield of France in the 80s, alongside Giresse, Luis Fernandez, and Michel Platini.
This partnership was a major factor in France winning the European Championships in 1984 and finishing in a respectable third place at the World Cup two years later.
14. Fabien Barthez (1994-2006, 87 caps)
Fabien Barthez is a player underrated by many football fans, dismissed as a clown that can only be relied upon to eventually make a mistake. While it is true that he had his moments, what shouldn't be forgotten is his outstanding record as a goalkeeper.
Throughout France's victorious 1998 World Cup campaign, Barthez was an integral part of the team, letting in just two goals in the seven matches Les Bleus played. He was given the Yashin award for those performances, as well as being named European Goalkeeper of the Year, an award he would win again in 2000.
No keeper has kept more clean sheets in a World Cup than Barthez, with only Peter Shilton matching his tally of 10, and those came in just 17 appearances at the finals.
13. Claude Makelele (1995-2008, 71 caps)
How many times has Claude Makelele been called the unsung hero? Certainly, for France, he wasn't fully appreciated until perhaps too late in his career. Having missed out on his country's finest hour in 1998, and the after-party in 2000, Makelele retired from international football in 2004 with just 33 caps.
His performances at club level made everyone realise just how good he was, though, and he was coaxed out of retirement alongside Lilian Thuram and Zinedine Zidane to help France qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
Having done that, he helped them to the final before again announcing his retirement, only to be begged back into action to help his country qualify for Euro 2008. It seemed France couldn't live without him, and his value to the team was there for all to see as Makelele became one of the first names on the team sheet.
12. Marcel Desailly (1993-2004, 116 caps, 3 goals)
For a player with 116 caps to his name as well as a World Cup and European Championships winners medal, Desailly could feel hard done by missing out on the top ten, but such is the quality of the players ahead of him that the commanding centre-back only makes it into 12th.
Despite getting sent-off in the 1998 World Cup final, Desailly had proved to be an integral part of the side, a role he continued in Euro 2000 to great effect. He was named captain after Didier Deschamps retired from the international scene, leading France to Confederations Cup success in 2001.
In 2003, he became the most capped French player of all time, finishing on 116 appearances, a tally since bettered by only Lilian Thuram and Thierry Henry.
11. Patrick Vieira (1997-2009, 107 caps, 6 goals)
Another member of France's golden era, Vieira was a mainstay in the France line-up during his prime. He was a relative newcomer in the 1998 World Cup, but by 2000 he had established himself as a first choice midfielder, helping France to the European Championships.
He was also part of the squad in France's victorious 2001 Confederations Cup campaign, and was still putting in top draw performances in 2006, helping Les Bleus to the World Cup final.
Despite his experience and leadership, Vieira was left out of the French squad for the upcoming World Cup, surely closing the book on an illustrious international career.
10. Laurent Blanc (1989-2000, 97 caps, 16 goals)
We couldn't have Barthez on this list with no Laurent Blanc, who would kiss the goalkeeper's head? Blanc was a towering defender who was still a vital part of the French set-up well into his 30s.
Not bad for a man who actually retired in 1994. Luckily for the French public, Aime Jacquet managed to convince Blanc out of retirement, and set about building a fresh team, using Blanc as one of main cornerstones.
It worked. Blanc was instrumental in France's successes in 1998 (scoring the World Cup's first ever golden goal) and 2000, accompanying Marcel Desailly at the back to create a formidable defence.
In 2006, he was voted the fourth best French player of all-time by readers of France Football Magazine.
9. Lilian Thuram (1994-2008, 142 caps, 2 goals)
It is no coincidence that the most capped player in French history is also one of the best. Thuram was a key member of the golden era of French football, scoring his only two international goals in the 1998 World Cup semi-final.
He also played a part in the European Championships in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008 (making a record 16 appearances in this tournament in the process), as well as the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
Impressively, he continued to play an active role throughout his time in the international set-up while many were reduced to bit-part roles. He was named man-of-the-match in the 2006 World Cup semi-final, and led his country into Euro 2008 as captain.
8. Didier Deschamps (1989-2000, 103 caps, 4 goals)
Didier Deschamps was once referred to as the "water-carrier" by fellow countryman Eric Cantona. While this statement was seen as derogatory, it summed up the job Deschamps had in the team. Win the ball and pass it to the "better" players.
It was a job of vital importance too. Deschamps commanded the game so well that he was named captain of the French team for the World Cup in 1998, becoming the first Frenchman to lift that trophy, and the European Championships in 2000.
In a team flowing with class, Deschamps did the dirty work better than anyone, allowing the likes of Zinedine Zidane to impose his class on the games.
7. Eric Cantona (1987-1995, 45 caps, 20 goals)
I'm expecting reactions to this placement to go one of two ways: amazement that I have put him so high or shock that I have put him so low. Both sides have valid arguments.
This list is mostly about international football, and there are players below Cantona who have done more on the international scene, but it also takes into account the quality of the player involved, and that is where Cantona begins to climb the rankings once more.
The stereotypical mercurial Frenchman, Cantona was considered a king at club level but his kung-fu kick halted any repeat of that on the international scene. While his 45 appearances gave the watching world a glimpse of his talent, by the time he had returned from his ban, a young Zinedine Zidane had taken his place.
6. Jean-Pierre Papin (1986-1995, 54 caps, 30 goals)
Jean-Pierre Papin, as with Cantona, was caught in between two golden eras in French football, but with a front two boasting the quality of Papin and Cantona, it is a surprise Les Bleus didn't fare better.
In fact, it was without Cantona that Papin enjoyed his greatest success for France, helping them to third place in the 1986 World Cup despite being a relative newcomer to the side.
His club record is even better than his international record, finishing as the top scorer in Ligue 1 for five seasons running, and winning the prestigious Ballon d'Or in 1991.
5. Thierry Henry (1997-Present, 119 caps, 51 goals)
Thierry Henry's international career will probably always be remembered for that handball to prevent Ireland from reaching this summer's World Cup, but if that is the case it is a great shame, as a truly remarkable career would be forgotten.
With 119 caps, Henry is the second most capped French player in history, with a chance to increase his tally even further in South Africa. He already holds the French goalscoring record with 51, ten goals clear of second place Michel Platini.
Henry was part of the both 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winning sides as well as helping France to the Confederations Cup trophy in 2003 and the World Cup final in 2006.
4. Just Fontaine (1953-1960, 21 caps, 30 goals)
Just Fontaine's tally of 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup is the stuff of legend. It took Gerd Muller, arguably the greatest goalscorer of all time, two World Cups to better it and Ronaldo, another of the finest players to lace up a pair of boots, had to wait four tournaments.
To date, those are the only players to have scored more World Cup goals that Fontaine. His performance in '58 may well be the greatest individual World Cup display ever seen, with a four goal haul past defending champions West Germany being the highlight.
He continued this prolific strike-rate during his entire career, as his international goals-to-games ratio shows. As such, he was voted the best French footballer of the past 50 years by the French Football Federation in 2003.
3. Raymond Kopa (1952-1962, 45 caps, 18 goals)
Raymond Kopa is the only player to have won both the Young Player of the Tournament and Player of the Tournament awards at two different World Cups, doing so in 1954 and 1958 respectively.
The 1958 award is the most impressive, as to win it he had to fight off competition from the likes of Pele, Garrincha, and teammate Just Fontaine. His performances at the World Cup led to him being awarded the Ballon d'Or later that year.
2. Michel Platini (1976-1987, 76 caps, 41 goals)
Say what you like about Michel Platini now, in his prime he was one of the most gifted players to have stepped out onto a football field. His passing, shooting, and dead-ball skills were among the greatest the game has ever seen.
These skills helped the French talisman to captain his country to two semi-final appearances at two different World Cups, in 1982 and 1986, but his zenith came at the 1984 European Championships.
Platini scored nine goals, including two perfect hat-tricks, and dominated all five games to help Les Bleus to their first international trophy. Individually, Platini was named the Player of the Tournament and the top scorer, showcasing his dominance.
The three time Ballon d'Or winner hasn't endeared himself to football fans since his retirement, but one should not forget the mastery of Platini the player.
1. Zinedine Zidane (1994-2006, 108 caps, 31 goals)
What can we say about Zinedine Zidane that hasn't already been said?
He was a magician; an artist; class personified.
From his two famous headers in the 1998 World Cup final that sent his country into ecstatic delirium to his rather more infamous header in the 2006 final that sent the same country into despair, Zidane has been France's crown jewel.
Zidane got his chance in the French side due to Cantona's lengthy ban, and he never looked back. After scoring twice in the 1998 World Cup final to help France beat Brazil 3-0, completely outclassing his rival Ronaldo in the process, he scored the golden goal in the semi-final of Euro 2000, which France went on to win.
His absence due to injury in France's opening two matches of the 2002 World Cup proved costly as Les Bleus went out in the group stages, but four years later he was back at his best, producing stellar performances time and time again.
Before the final he was named Player of the Tournament, and he let it be know that this would be his last game in football.
He became only the fourth player to score in two different World Cup finals when he put France ahead, but the match will always be remembered for his headbutt on Marco Materazzi that brought a premature end to the career of one the greatest to have played the game...and that's without even mentioning his three World Player of the Year awards.
Zinedine Zidane - the greatest French player of all time!
To see all the other installments from Barney Corkhill's Greatest Ever series, click here.
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