France's Footballing Youth: Always in Demand

Joel FCorrespondent INovember 7, 2008


Despite the declining reputation of French football in Europe, the country's clubs continue to produce talent that will inevitably be tempted abroad. Arguably, Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa are the current generation's most recognisable representatives still playing in France.

There are many others, established or only just emergent. Among the youthful luminaries are Jimmy Briand, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Bafétimbi Gomis, Yoann Gourcuff, Damien Le Tallec (brother of Anthony Le Tallec), Steve Mandanda, Blaise Matuidi, and Henri Saivet.

With some fans, this generation might never replicate the popularity of their predecessors—players like Youri Djorkaeff, Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera, and Zinedine Zidane—but the majority crucially remain contracted to domestic teams.

Regardless, clubs elsewhere in Europe have begun to be linked with them. A few have already accepted overtures, including Jeremy Ménéz and Samir Nasri, while some, like Gael Clichy and Mathieu Flamini, have long been resident abroad.

But influential voices in France have begun to express reservation and even opposition to these departures. In March 2008, France's technical director, Gérard Houllier, went so far as to publicly urge the country's footballing youth to continue their development in France. Ironic as that may appear for a man who bought numerous prospects to Liverpool as manager, he did express his position with clarity: "Nasri, Ben Arfa and Benzema are being selected in the best French teams. They are therefore in the best conditions to develop their game, progress and make that step up. They must stay and get more confidence into their game, assert their qualities and achieve things. And leaving Ligue 1 shouldn't just be a question of money. You must be professional in your approach to leaving. Going abroad must be motivated by the desire to assert your potential, your play."

French players have long prospered abroad and achieved global recognition in Europe's major leagues. At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has been one of the most committed advocates of French talent. But there have been undoubted failures, all too often occurring because of premature moves and subsequent squad marginalisation.

Perhaps Houllier's philosophy is influenced by personal experience of what happened at Liverpool to Bruno Cheyrou (the new Zizou), Djibril Cissé (bought after Houllier's departure), Alou Diarra, Bernard Diomède, Anthony Le Tallec, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, and Grégory Vignal.

While the division still contains older footballers of the calibre of Mamadou Niang and Juninho Pernambucano, Ligue 1 has consistently struggled to retain its strongest, invariably youngest players. Lamentably, the French leagues have, at times, begun to uncomfortably resemble a farm system.

Ligue 1's prestige has been in decline since the success of French sides came to an abrupt end in the late 1990s. In 1996, Paris St-Germain had gained a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup trophy (and would advance to a second consecutive final in 1997) while Bordeaux reached the UEFA Cup final. International triumph followed in 1998 and 2000 yet the past 10 years have been punctuated three times by a Ligue team losing in a European final: Marseille (1999 and 2004) and Monaco (2004).

The division has acquired a reputation for negative, defensive football and low scoring. Attendances have fallen and the league has been accussed of having few "stars".

What can be done? Earlier this year, broadcasting rights were sold to Canal+ and Orange for €668 million over four seasons. The league would certainly benefit from further investment, expanded resources, and a concerted effort to improve infrastructure. The French Football Federation (FFF) must enable more clubs to be as competitive as Marseille and Lyon have recently proved to be. 

Unless measures are implemented to address the disparity between Ligue 1 and its rivals, few will be inclined to emulate 25-year-old Jérémy Toulalan. The defensive midfielder has positively diverged from convention and recently negotiated a lucrative extension to his Lyon contract, which will expire in 2012.

The FFF must attempt to address Ligue 1's problems and endeavour to augment the abundance of talent with marketable, foreign players, lest the division continue to lose its starlettes.