Coach Laurent Blanc says that France no longer has any great players, and has called on future stars to put their development as young players ahead of short-term financial gain.
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Blanc won the World Cup and the European Championship as a defender during France’s heyday a decade ago. That team was packed with players who were stars at the biggest European clubs.
"For the moment we don’t have any great players in our national team," Blanc said in an interview with The Associated Press. "What’s for certain is that we haven’t got there yet, we’re not ready."
Blanc thinks only Chelsea’s Florent Malouda and Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery are close to that level. Encouragingly, Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri is on the way to joining them.
"We have a few players who are playing in big clubs, who are maybe in the process of becoming great players. We have to be patient, we have to help them to blossom," Blanc said. "If we can have three or four players blossoming in big clubs, that gives us a solid platform and a strong identity to our game, that would be the first step. But we’re far away from that."
France’s 1998 World Cup winning team went on to win the European Championship two years later. Those teams included players who stood out at club level, such as Juventus pair Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane, AC Milan defender Marcel Desailly, Arsenal midfielders Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, and Inter Milan forward Youri Djorkaeff.
"When I say a great player, I mean a great player at European level," Blanc said. "There are two or three who are first-teamers in some of the biggest clubs in Europe … Franck Ribery, Malouda (and) Samir, who is becoming crucial to the way Arsenal plays."
Nasri’s rise to prominence this season has seen the former Marseille midfielder add goals and strength to his skill.
Blanc needs Nasri to keep going, because goalscorers are scarce in the current France squad. Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema is the only one to reach double figures with 10 goals in 31 international appearances.
Malouda has only five goals in 61 games, although former coach Raymond Domenech often played him in a defensive role far removed from the free rein he has under Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea.
France shared the goals around in Blanc’s era.
Blanc scored 16 in 97 internationals, a great record for a defender, including the winner against Paraguay that sent France into the ’98 World Cup quarterfinals.
The key to that team was teamwork, bringing together superb individual players.
"The difference will be made as a team. Not every team has great players, there are not a ton of them like (Samuel) Eto’o, (or Didier) Drogba," Blanc said. "Some teams manage to have exceptional results because they play collectively and because of their attitude. This could eventually be the case for us."
Talent is clearly not in short supply, it’s more what’s done with it that concerns Blanc, who believes that promising teenagers should think twice before joining a big club in England’s Premier League, as it may just lead to years on the bench.
French football’s renowned youth system has seen a factory-line of players leaving the country young to join big teams, considerably weakening the domestic league because clubs often lose their brightest prospects for little money.
Rather than gaining a few years’ experience at home, many young starlets are offered lucrative deals abroad, often in the Premier League, where some have drifted into obscurity or never truly lived up to their potential.
The 19-year-old winger Gael Kakuta is France’s most highly-rated young player.
Yet he has made only three league appearances and one start in three seasons so far at Chelsea, while other members of France’s under-19 European Championship-winning team – forward Alexandre Lacazette and central midfielder Clement Grenier – are breaking into Lyon’s first team.
Lens, struggling in the first division, could not hold on to Kakuta. Le Havre, a tremendous talent-spotting club, is in the second division and lost highly-rated midfielder Paul Pogba to join Manchester United when he was 16.
"At that age the most important thing is to improve, to play and to learn, rather than getting an attractive transfer to a club in the big four or the big five (of the Premier League)," Blanc said. "They’ll train once or twice a week with the first team but will never play in the first team. What’s the point of that?"
Although Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka has had a glittering club career after leaving Paris Saint-Germain to join Arsenal when he was 16, others have taken that route and flopped.
Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama-Pongolle were 17 – and tipped as future national team strikers – when they left Le Havre to join Liverpool under its former boss Gerard Houllier in 2002.
Sinama-Pongolle started only 12 league games in five seasons before joining Recreativo Huelva in Spain, while Le Tallec started just five before leaving to join lowly Le Mans in 2008 and is now at Auxerre.
Sinama-Pongolle has played just once for France, Le Tallec never got close to a call up.
Forward Jeremie Aliadiere joined Arsenal as a teenager, scored one league goal in six seasons. The 27-year-old is without a club after Middlesbrough released him last season.
Such wasted talent annoys Blanc.
"It halts progress. You need a career plan, what do you aspire to at 16 or 17 when you are in a French club? To play in the first team at Le Havre or to get a big transfer and not play?" Blanc said. "The player has to think about this with his entourage to make the right choice."
Blanc fears it’s getting harder to convince them.
"You have to make the youngsters understand that they may have been noticed by a big European club, but they’re only 17 or 18 and not even in the first team of the French club they’re at," Blanc said. "If you think about the ideal progression, it’s not the right choice. (But) we’re not in control of the lad or his entourage."