French soccer has finally come of age. After years of failing to match its promise with league or national success through the years, France has in eight short years joined the club of elite soccer nations. In the process, they have submitted their application to Brazil, Italy, Germany and Argentina — the ‘Big Four’ (B4) — to increase the membership to include France.
Early in its history, France was one of the first Europeans soccer federations to embrace the concept of “beautiful soccer” interpreted by South American sides (notably Uruguay in the 1930s and later Brazil). Adding European strategies to this philosophy turned France into a country that played attractive football with little results. Victory, as it was, belonged to Uruguay and Italy.
Following the Second World War, Europe was poised to rejuvenate itself. The promise of the decade for French football was great. With the arrival of Raymond Kopa and Juste Fontaine, France had legitimate aims at hoisting the World Cup. However, there were other players as well. This eclectic decade saw the Magnificent Magyars dominate world soccer. Brazil were also after the big prize with the likes of Garrincha and Pele. The decade also witnessed the inability of the powerful English to adapt to the changing nature of international football (England was shocked by the losses to the United States and Hungary) while the tragic Torino plane crash in 1949 left a negative mark on Italian soccer.
Alas, by the time fifties drew to a close, France’s trophy case remained empty. The best they could muster were two Champions’ League finals with Stade de Reims and a disappointing third place finish at the 1958 World Cup – won by Brazil.
France had to wait for the 1980s to roll in to once again have a shot at being Champions. Gallic football had created for itself a rich history up to this point but glory had eluded them as Germany and Italy dominated the continent and the world at large. Even England managed a title in 1966. France had become, well, a minnow among the great soccer powers.
The decade started strong enough with a fourth place finish at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. In 1984 — led by Michel Platini, Battiston, Rocheteau and Bossis — France won the Euro. Two years later in Mexico, France were clear favorites to win the World Cup. But like the 1950s, the decade that was supposed to lead France into football glory had ended abruptly. In 1986 they finished third and the decade belonged to Italy and Argentina. Another decade of unfulfilled dreams for “Les Bleus.”
However, France did not have to wait 30 years for another legitimate shot at the title. This time 12 years and a new crop of players were enough to finally lead France to glory in 1998 – in Paris no less.
Of course, detractors have pointed to France’s racial make up of its national lamenting that there are no true Frenchmen in its lineup. A rather feeble argument considering that Raymond Kopa and Juste Fontaine were naturalized French citizens. I doubt many complain about this. But this is a debate for another time.
Much like the Reims soccer academy that produced notable players like Kopa — and later on Robert Pires — today Le Centre Technique Nationale Fernand-Sastre, established in 1988, has begun to pay dividends as the French classical style from earlier years and the modern development system have finally begun to produce results.
If national success is on the rise, the pace has been slower at the club level with La Ligue Un or te Premiére Division. The domestic league has always been a backwater one when compared to the major power leagues of Europe. Early in its history Stade de Reims and St. Etienne were strong club sides that manufactured French talent but they could never win — if ever — Europe’s most prestigious trophy on any regular basis. Six leagues monopolized that title — Serie A (Italy), Premiership (England), La Liga (Spain) – widely regarded as the three top leagues — the Eredivisie (Holland), Bundesliga (Germany) and Portugal (Premeira Liga).
With the emergence of Lyons, perhaps this is about to change. Today, the French league is fast making inroads. It has a long way to go before it can be regarded as one of the top leagues but with its ranks energized this may very well change.
Joining the “Big Four” here are the stats and accomplishments: Going into the 2006 World Cup they were 7th all-time behind England and Spain with a 21-16-7 record:
1958 – World Cup: 3rd
1982 – World Cup: 4th
1984 – Euro Cup: Champions
1986 – World Cup: 3rd
1998 – World Cup Champions
2000 – Euro Cup: Champions
2006 – World Cup finalists