The French have long provided us with some of the best players in the world, yet they are often overlooked as a talent factory. While talk seems to center around the talent from Brazil, Argentina or England, these players have overcome those shadows to shine their light on the footballing world. Here is my list of the 10 best players to come from the Western European country. Feel free to point out those I may have missed.
The dominating defenseman was an dominant force in France's 98 World Cup and 2000 European success. Never a threat to come forward and score, his only two international goals came against Croatia in the 98 World Cup Semi Finals, leading France to a 2-1 victory. He earned the Bronze Ball, given to the third best player in the World Cup that year. After beginning his career with AS Monaco, Thuram featured for Parma and Juventus in Serie A before finishing out his career at Barcelona. Thuram is France's most capped player with 142.
Jean Tigana was part of the “le Carré Magique” (the magic square) midfield for the French National team of the mid 80s. Tigana began his career with rather late with Toulon. He later moved to Lyon and then on to Bordeaux, where he won three league titles and three cup titles. He moved to Marseille at the end of his career before retiring. The diminutive player was a creative force in the midfield and was adept at setting his teammates up for scoring chances. Tigana has gone on to manage since his playing days, most recently with Bordeaux.
Didier Deschamps was captain of the World Cup 98 and Euro 2000 champion sides. Deschamps earned 103 caps for France and was instrumental to the national side’s success in the late 90s. At the club level, Deschamps played for Nantes, Marseille, Bordeaux, Juventus, Chelsea and Valencia before retiring. Didier was the youngest captain to win the Champions League when he captained Marseille to the European crown in 1993. Deschamps has taken his success as a field general to the sidelines with him as a Ligue 1 champion coach with Marseille.
Patrick Viera is one of the most commanding midfield figures to step onto a pitch. His physical presence combined with his technical abilities made him the prototypical defensive midfielder. The two-way sensation was as adept in making probing runs and passes in attack as he was stifling opponent’s chances.
He began his career with Cannes before moving to AC Milan, where he languished on the bench. Arsene Wenger brought him to Arsenal in 1996, where he would become a midfield rock for the next 10 years. After captaining Arsenal to an incredible undefeated domestic campaign in 2004, he left for Juventus in 2005. The following year, he left amid the Juventus scandal for Inter Milan before joining Manchester City, where he currently still plays. During his international career, Viera was part of the 98 World Cup and 2000 Euro winning sides.
Laurent Blanc was a central defender who helped France hoist the 1998 World Cup. Always a physical presence, Blanc was originally an technically gifted midfielder before finding his calling in the heart of defense. Besides great defense, Le President was also adept at scoring goals from his backline position. His club career saw him begin with Montpellier before moving onto Napoli, Nimes and St Etienne in a three-year span. He joined Auxerre in 1995, helping them achieve the double in France before heading to Barcelona. He left the Spanish giants for Marseille, then to Inter Milan and finally Manchester United. The well-travelled Blanc has done well in the coaching box as well, currently trying to rebuild the debacle that was the 2010 French World Cup Team.
Raymond Kopa was a star for the French national team and Real Madrid during the 1950s. The talented forward began his career at SCO Angers before moving to Stade de Reims. After leading Reims to two French Titles and losing the European Cup in 1956 to Real Madrid, Kopa moved to the Spanish giants. Kopa was the first French player to win a European Cup when he won with Madrid in 1957. After winning two more European cups, he returned to Reims, where he won two more league titles before retiring. Kopa helped lead the French National team to a third place finish at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
Thierry Henry is without a doubt one of the greatest players of his generation. The AS Monaco player went to Juventus before following former coach Arsene Wenger to Arsenal. It was during his time at Arsenal where Henry used his pace and skill to set the Premier League on fire. During his years at Arsenal, Henry starred for the Gunners during their unbeaten run in 2004 and was a European Golden Boot winner two years in a row. He moved to Barcelona where he won a Champions League title and then moved to the New York Red Bulls, where he currently plays. Henry was another member of the World Cup and Euro winning sides for France. He was a mainstay in the French National team lineup before retiring from international play in 2010.
Just Fontaine is one of the most prolific goal scorers in the history of the game. He began his career with USM Casablanca before moving to Nice in 1953. In 1956, he moved to Stade de Reims, where he teamed up with Raymond Kopa. Fontaine remained at Reims until injuries forced his early retirement at age 28. He won two league titles and scored an incredible 225 goals in 200 games in Ligue 1. His performance at the 1958 World Cup was astonishing, as he netted 13 times, the most ever in a single tournament. In all, he scored 30 goals in 21 games for the French National Team, adding to his tremendous scoring resume.
Michel Platini was a midfield marvel. He was dangerous from free kicks and could set the table as well as finish the platter when it came to the attack. His extraordinary career began with AS Nancy before he moved to St Etienne. He then finished his career with Juventus. His club career included French league and cup, Serie A, European Super Cup and European Cup titles. He led the Serie A in scoring three straight years and was awarded the Ballon d’Or. On the international stage, Platini led France to the European Championship in 1984. It was France’s first major tournament win. Platini took part in three World Cups, culminating with a third place finish in 1986.
Zidane is known as much for his temper as his abilities on the pitch. The lasting image of him walking off the pitch after being red carded in the 2006 World Cup final is one that remains with many fans.
Zidane was a master of the game; he had outstanding control of the ball. His passing was unbelievably accurate, and he could score in any way possible. His two goals in the World Cup final against Brazil propelled his nation to their only World Cup triumph. He almost repeated the feat against Italy in the 2006 finals, coming out of international retirement to help insure qualification for the tournament, then putting the team on his back and carrying them to the final.
After playing for Cannes and Bordeaux, Zidane took his skills to Juventus, where he took his game to the next level. In 2001, Real Madrid paid a then record fee for his services. He did not disappoint, as he led Madrid to a win in the Champions League final in 2002. Talented and volatile Zidane played his way into a status reserved for only the very best of all time.