The top leagues in the world are the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga and the Italian Serie A, and perhaps the German Bundasleague would also lay claim to joining the elite at the top, although in recent years, the German national team not withstanding, German clubs have struggles in the Champions League. However, while these 3 or 4 leagues may lay claim to be the footballing hot beds of Europe, it is the lesser leagues of France ,and these days Portugal too, that are producing the worlds best footballers.
Since Frances 1998 World Cup win, and the Euro 2000 triumph that followed, France have always been amongst the top international teams in the world. Yet their league has failed to produce any real challenges to the likes of England, Spain and Italy’s best. Lyon, 6 times French champions in the last 6 years, have flirted with the idea of being contenders for Europe’s top club prize, but have failed to deliver and solid group form over the last 5 years. The list of French talent that has honed their skill on their home pitches before seeking glory, recognition and huge bank balances on other shores is staggering for such a league. While the likes of Platini, Jean Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona lead the way, the team that won the 98 World Cup and then Euro 2000 was littered with some of the best established and emerging talents to ply their trade on the European and world stage. Desailly, Petit, Deschamps, Barthez, Thuram and Lizarazu won great acclaim and success at the likes of Milan, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Parma, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, while the generations finest player, Zinedine Zidane, did it for Juventus and Real Madrid. Those French teams also brought to the worlds, and subsequently the big boys in league football, attention to the likes of emerging, precocious talent such as David Trezeguet, who moved to Juventus shortly after, Robert Pires, who went to Arsenal and is now at Villareal, Anelka, who has played for a host of teams ranging from Arsenal and Real Madrid, to Manchester City and Bolton, and the holder of the new French international goal scoring record, and Arsenal legend, now with Barcelona, Thierry Henry. While that golden generation enjoyed its share of success during a prolific 2 year period, the new set of French super stars are arriving in bulk. Ribery, the flying winger was the first to make an impact, and after being linked to every big club in the world, is now playing in Germany with Bayern Munich, where he is helping to regain the dominance they lost last season, and has gotten off to a very promising start to his new club career. Hot on his heels are the talented young trio who look set to be involved in bidding wars in the near future from clubs in England, Spain and Italy, Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema, both of Lyon, and Samir Nasri of Marseilles. While Nasri has been labelled the new Zidane, as much for his undoubted talent as for his Algerian roots, and Ben Arfa has been lauded as the future of France football, it is Benzema who is making all the head lines at this moment. The 19 year old striker has scored 11 goals in the opening 11 games of the French season, and has been called up to the French national team ahead of Trezeguet.
Benzema is now the hottest property in France. A striker, who has been used out wide, much to his objection, he has modeled himself on the Ronaldo who he saw playing for Barcelona and scored 47 goals in 49 games for the Catalan giants. With his growing reputation, and notice being taken by all the big teams, Lyon have offered him 5 new contracts in the last 3 years, the latest of which ties him to the club for another 5 years. Yet at the rate he is progressing, and the ambition he has shown, it is highly unlikely that Benzema will still be at Lyon in the next season or two, never mind five. Arsenal, who have a strong French bias, are rumoured to be interested in bringing both Benzema and Ben Arfa to London. Real Madrid are also interested, however a move to England, to either Arsenal or even Manchester United, would surely be more beneficial to his career, as the English game as been better suited to French players, and Ferguson and Wenger in-particular have a history of getting the best out of young talent.
Hatem Ben Arfa was offered a place in Tunisia’s World Cup squad for Germany 2006, but turned it down, awaiting the call from France, his country of birth. The young midfielder has been widely acclaimed at Lyon since making his debut against Nice in 2005. The left winger has attracted the attention of Madrid, Barca, Inter and Milan,and at the rate both he and Benzema are going at Lyon will find it very tough not to bow to the inevitable big offers that are bound to come for the pair.
Samir Nasri, the Marseilles midfielder, has already had to live with the billing as the new Zidane. While this has a lot to do with the fact that he is from Marseilles and of Algerian decent, that is not the whole story. The 19 year old Nasri posses skill and talent that are very much Zidane like, possessing an uncanny likeness to the French legend when on the ball. But the humble kid, showing maturity that many his age in the game are lacking, wishes to shy away from such comparisons, claiming that there is only one Zidane, and he is just a young player trying to make it in the French League, something he says he has not yet done. A host of clubs are looking at the young prodigy, who was named France’s Young Player of the Year last season, including Real Madrid, Arsenal and Manchester United. Rumours of a first option deal with Arsenal have been denied, yet with Arsenal Wengers history of bringing young players to London, and bias towards French players, don’t be surprised to see Nari at the Emirates Stadium in the future.
These three young players posses the potential and talent to once again take France to the top of world football, and are all being coveted by the best clubs in the world. Unfortunately the French league is a selling league, and all three will have to jump ship to England, Spain or Italy in the near future if they are to fully realise their potential. Hopefully it will see them under the nurturing eye of either Fergie or Wenger and not on the subs benches of Chelsea or Madrid, where their careers are as likely to stall as they are to flourish.
The next post will look at some of the Portuguese youngsters coming through the ranks at their varies teams, aiming to be the next Figo, Rui Costa or Christiano Ronaldo.