One-time World Cup winners, two-time European Cup winners, France is a football nation that has earned its respect in the football arena. Through many years of drama and spectacular football the French have entertained all who love football.
Inevitably, a player, like a gear-wheel in a machine, has come to outshine all the other parts of the team.
In the 50s and early 60s, it was Just Fontaine’s enormous talent that moved that heavy machine forward. In the 80s, the prodigy of Michele Platini was dropping jaws. In the 90s and at the dawn of the new millennium, Zinedine Zidane, with his slow-motioned tricks, and exquisite tactical mind was amazing everyone.
In truth, France has produced many footballers worthy of a place in the top ten of the best footballers ever to live.
But who were the best footballers of France? Was it Zizou, Platini, or maybe Cantona?
Prepare yourself to travel through time:
Jean-Peirre Papin has played for many clubs throughout his career, but he reaped the most success during his time at Olympique Marseille. He stayed at the club for six years: from 1986 to ‘92.
In 1991, he was named European Footballer of the Year. His rich career playing for a variety of clubs is festooned with the impressive 228 goals in 494 matches.
On an international level, Papin has managed to put the ball in the net 30 times in just 54 matches. Branded with some amount of bad luck, despite being part of a gifted generation, Papin could not win anything with his national side.
Even though France had talented players like David Ginola, Eric Cantona, and Jean-Pierre Papin in the years between Michel Platini’s retirement and the success of the 1998 World Cup, the generation would come to be called “the cursed one” due to the fact that they were unsuccessful at wining any major trophy.
Despite that, Jean-Pierre Papin remains an emblematic figure of this generation and is considered one of the best French footballers.
Raymond Kopa was an influential figure for the French national team during 1958 World Cup. Due to his contributions and performances, Kopa received the award of Best Player of the Tournament. Four years earlier, he had received the Best Young Player of the Tournament awards, only hinting about his potential.
For 10 years of playing for France, Raymond Kopa managed to find the net18 times in 45 matches.
Other noticeable achievements are distinguished on club football level. He managed to win four French Division One titles with Stade de Reims: 1953, ’55, ’60, and ’62. He also spent three glorious years at Real Madrid where he played alongside the amazing Ferenc Puskas.
His success was capped by two Spanish League titles: 1957, and ’58.
The Senegalese-born Patrick Vieira started his career at Cannes. After only two years at the club, his strength, height, and stamina drew the attention of European titans Milan who snatched him from the French team in 1995.
He only managed to start two times in the first team before newly-employed Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger took him under his wing. His physical attributes allowed Vieira to quickly adapt to the physical style of the English game, and his accurate passing fit perfectly into Wenger’s attacking style tactics. This made him an integral part of the Arsenal squad.
He spent nine fruitful years at the London club, and even though he acquired the status of a legend there, he decided a change is needed and moved to Juventus in 2005.
Since then, Vieira has successfully defended the right to be called one of the best defensive midfielders in the world by providing stable performances for clubs like Juventus, Internazionale, and just recently Manchester City.
For his national side, he has participated in 107 games, making him just one of six players to have surpassed the milestone of 100 matches. His ever-stable performances and leadership qualities have also earned him the captain’s armband for several games of his country.
His most memorable years though would be undoubtedly the years spent at Arsenal.
His presence has been ever-missed and some claim it is still missed now, five years after his departure from the team. One thing is sure to be true though: He was one of the best French players to ever play the game.
Talking about heavyweights, Lilian Thuram is the most quintessential example of them. He remains the most capped footballer in the French national side with an amazing 142 appearances.
Despite being the most capped player in French football history, Thuram has only managed to score two goals. And here comes the interesting part: both were in a single match—the semi-final against Croatia in the 1998 World Cup.
One of the many prestigious awards of his nation was practically earned by him. France would have not reached the final in 1998 if it wasn’t to Thuram’s two goals, which interestingly enough, came after he covered the offside for the goal of the Croatians.
Among his most honorable awards are the French cup with Monaco in 1990/91, the UEFA Cup, the Italian Cup and Super Cup in 1998/99, four more Italian championship cups with Juventus, and twice more the Italian cup with the same club. On top of that, the 142 caps for France were not in vain too: one World Cup trophy and a European Cup.
The king of football Pele stated that Lilian Thuram is definitely one of the top 125 best footballers of all time.
One of France’s finest captains ever, Didier Deschamps was identified as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
His career initiated at Nantes, but soon after, he was spotted by scouts from Marseille. His spell at the club was broken by a year of playing for Bordeaux.
Upon his return to Marseille though, Deschamps began to reap success.
He managed to win two French titles, as well as the Champions League title in 1993, making him the youngest captain ever to win the tournament.
For France, his long and fruitful road to glory began with a debut against Yugoslavia in 1989. Unfortunately for him, he had to go through some dark periods as France failed to qualify for both the 1990 and ‘94 World Cups.
His first captaincy for his nation came at the 1996 European Championship in England. He led his team to the semifinal—their best achievement since 1986.
Two years later, Deschamps played a significant role for his nation’s success in the World Cup at their home ground. Inspired by his leadership, his team-mates went on to win the European Championship two years later.
After the tournament, Didier put an end to a long and successful career. Eric Cantona described the captain succeeding him as the “water carrier” or the man responsible for passing the ball to more talented players.
Nevertheless, the influential player served a very important part in his nation’s endeavors. His defensive and leadership qualities secured him a place in the list of 125 greatest football players assembled by the King of Football – Pele.
He remains one of France’s best players.
The talismanic figure of Manchester United, who came to transform the English game forever, made his football debut for Auxerre on 5th November, 1983.
From the start, his talent was evident, but soon after, Cantona’s disciplinary problems become to surface.
In 1987, he punched a team-mate in the face. Two years later, he threw his shoes at the face of Jean-Claude Lemoult during his one-year loan at Montpellier. Despite his outbursts, he remained of the team’s most influential figures, helping them win the French Cup.
Two years, later, in spite of helping Marseille win the French league, he was transferred to Nimes. To cap it all, during a match of his new team, Eric threw the ball at the referee and was suspended for it.
After talks with Michel Platini and his psychoanalyst, Cantona was convinced to a fresh start in England.
It was there where his star would shine.
His most memorable years in which he produced breathtaking football were during his time in Manchester United. With four years at the club, he won Premier league trophies, scoring a total of 64 goals.
Despite his misbehavior in and out of the field, his peculiar remarks which did not always fit the taste of the ruling bodies in England, Eric Cantona remains one of the most emblematic figures ever to play in the English league.
For his national side, he has scored 20 goals in 45 appearances. A favorite of current UEFA president Michel Platini and of many French football supporters, Cantona’s talent and abilities has been imprinted in the football lovers’ minds.
It is exactly that image he had created and many more why he is still considered one of the best French footballers ever to play the game.
Just Fontaine was one of the first to hint of French football talent. His career began at USM Casablanca in 1950. His speedy progress attracted the attention of not only bigger clubs in France but also of the French national coach.
In 1953, only three years after starting his career, Fontaine received the call which introduced him to international football.
On 17th December, the same year, Fontaine, who later would be nicknamed “Justo”, scored a hat-trick against the small country of Luxemburg. His career shot off to the sky from then on. For the club that was lucky enough to have him in his team, he scored 44 goals in three seasons. Three years later, in 1956, Fontaine moved to Stade de Reims.
He scored a staggering 131 goals in 122 matches during his stay at the club.
But the more impressive display, and he would be remembered for later, was reserved for the international stage. For seven years of participating in the France international side, he scored 30 goals in 21 matches—an impressive 1.43 goal ratio per match.
His most glorifying moment was at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden though.
He managed to score 13 goals in six games—four of which dented the self-confidence of defending champions West Germany. The record still stands today as nobody has managed to score this amount of goals in any World Cup version.
A legend of Arsenal, Thierry Henry will remain in the hearts of all who support the London club. Having spent his most productive years for the club, scoring a hugely impressive 174 goals in 254 appearances, Henry booked his place among the best players in the world.
His talent was first spotted by the same manager that took him at Arsenal – Arsene Wenger, at that time, the manager of Monaco. His first year at the club, Henry was placed on different positions in order for Wenger to figure out where he would be most efficient.
Scoring only three goals, Wenger continued to experiment, placing Henry on the striker position. The decision paid off and in the next two years Henry helped his club to win the French League and reach the Champions League semifinal. On top of that, he won the French Young Footballer of the year in 1996.
In 1999, he was transferred to Juventus where he had hard time to adapt to Italian football.
Three years earlier, Arsene Wenger had taken charge of Arsenal. Luckily for Henry, Wenger still remembered his talents and decided to capitalize on the French striker’s unfavorable position in which his talent was just being wasted.
In August 1999, Henry moved to Arsenal and his career hit the skies.
Only a year after his arrival, Henry transformed into a key figure at the club. He finished his inaugural season with a tally of 26 goals. During the next season, Henry was slightly off the chart, but still managed to become the club’s top goal-scorer.
His first Premier League title came the next year. Arsenal won the League, finishing seven points clear of Liverpool. They received further boost by winning the FA cup over Chelsea.
During the next season, Arsenal failed to defend the title, but Henry was named FIFA Best Player of Year.
Determined to turn his new passion, Arsenal, into a powerhouse, Henry and company then strolled through the next season without a single defeat. The team would later be nicknamed “The Incincibles”.
All in all, Thierry Henry transformed into an Arsenal legend and even managed to break the goal scoring record of Ian Right.
His amazing efficiency was noticed by Barcelona and due to his advancing age Henry seized the opportunity to play for the Catalan club in 2007. Nevertheless, he still remains in the hearts of the Arsenal fans and is always welcome to return.
For France, Thierry Henry has had 51 goals in 119 games, making him France’s top goal-scorer. A successful international career was tarnished by a controversial World Cup play-off with Ireland played on 18 November 2009.
In extra-time, Henry used his hand to control the ball to set William Gallas to score the winner. Called a cheat, Henry suggested for the match to be replayed, and even said he had considered retiring from international football. Later, no legal grounds were found by the UEFA Disciplinary Commission to punish him.
The heart of the 80s French national football team, Michel Platini is regarded by many as one of the best footballers of all time. His exquisite passing, vision, and free-kick ability entertained many and brought countless of trophies and memorable victories for France.
His debut on the international stage was made in the 1976 Olympic Games. France did well by reaching the quarterfinals, when with some dubious referring resulting in having two players sent off, they lost to East Germany 4-0.
The brilliance of Michel Platini was contained in the group stages of the 1978 World Cup. France lost to Italy and Argentina and disappointingly delayed their plans of conquering the football world.
Four years later, France reached the semifinals but lost to West Germany in a thrilling encounter. Platini later called the match one of his best memories in football.
It was in 1984 when Platini’s raw talent would help his nation to glory. Scoring a staggering 15 goals in 5 matches, the French captain won the golden boot and European Cup glory for France—their first major trophy ever.
No one had even the slightest doubt whether they deserved that.
In Mexico, 1986, Platini was 31 and not in the best of conditions—suffering from groin pain which forced the medical team to give him injections to alleviate the pain. He, nevertheless, contributed to the team’s reaching of the quarterfinals by adding to his total tally two more goals.
One of them he scored against the defending champions Italy. The other, the last one for his country, he scored against Brazil in a worthy quarterfinal. Les Blues lost that match in a penalty shoot-out thriller though, with Platini blasting his shot over the bar.
One year later, he retired, remaining France’s leading goal scorer with 41 goals until another French star, Thierry Henry, broke his record in 2008.
Inspirational, unconventional, and gifted, Michel Platini did his best to perplex the football fans in their consideration of who might be the best French footballer of all time.
Only one man had what it takes to rival Platini’s talent.
Classical music, a beautiful painting, the delicacy of a ballerina’s dancing; this and many more is all you could think of when watching the French maestro at work.
Zinedine Zidane is considered by many as the best footballer France has ever had.
And how could you not?
Watching that volley against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, his slow-motioned tricks that enthrall the defenders, his delicate control of the ball all blend to create a mental image of a perfect dance, accompanied by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the background.
His spectacular career started at Cannes, where he played for four years. In 1992, Zidane moved to Bordeaux where he formed great partnership with Christophe Dugarry in midfield—a partnership that later became an integral part of the French national team.
In 1996, Juventus expressed desire to have a man of such talent in their team. They bought him for 3.2 million Pounds. Zidane spent some of his best years at Juventus before he moved to Real Madrid in 2001 for a record-breaking fee of 70.5 million Euros.
Apart from all the tricks, important goals, and assists at Real, he will be remembered most for the outrageously beautiful volley goal against Bayer Leverkusen in the final of 2002 Champions League final.
Real won 2-1 earning Zidane his first Champions League trophy and his first and last personal quadruple (domestic league, continental cup, and the two biggest international cups: the European and World cups).
On the international stage, Zidane made his debut against the Czech Republic in 1994. He managed to score twice to reduce a deficit of two goals pushing the match into a draw, 2-2.
Nevertheless, he was playing second fiddle to the legendary French captain Eric Cantona who was also playing on the same position. His chance to prove his worth came, however, due to some bizarre circumstances. France’s playmaker, Cantona, received a one-year ban from the pitch after having attacked a fan.
Zidane seized the chance and the Manchester United legend was not called again to play for his national team.
In 1998, in front of his own crowd, Zizou helped his national team win their first ever World Cup trophy. In the final against Brazil, Zidane scored two goals in one of the most convincing displays of France during the World Cup.
In 2000, the French playmaker kept on creating magic. Scoring a crucial free kick against Spain and a golden goal against the Portuguese in the semifinals of the European Cup, the Frenchman with Algerian roots ascended his country on the pedestal of supremacy.
France became the second country, after West Germany in 1974, to hold two major trophies simultaneously—the World Cup and European Cup trophies.
After suffering huge setbacks in the major competitions in 2002 and ’04, Zidane announced his retirement from football.
Current manager of the team Raymond Domenech managed to lure Zidane out of retirement though for the 2006 World Cup. Once again, the raw talent of Zizou shone throughout the tournament.
With two important assists, and a coolly execution of a deciding penalty in the semifinal, Zidane carried his country to yet another final where they had to face fierce rivals Italy.
France lost to penalties and after the infamous incident with Marco Materazzi, Zidane decided to call his final retirement.
Rich and glorious in history, Zidane’s career came to be considered as the best ever of a French player. With his unique style Zinedine Zidane marked football in a way that he may never be forgotten.
French supporters and fans of football will always remember him as one of the best players to ever play football, and the best French footballer of all time.