France have undergone several transformations since the disappointment of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, with first Laurent Blanc and then Didier Deschamps taking over in the dugout and overseeing a raft of changes. Prompted by form, suspensions, injuries, retirements from the international scene and the emergence of new faces, these changes have come in central defence, midfield and up front.
One man who has stayed put throughout it all, however, is Hugo Lloris. The captain of Les Bleus since November 2010, the 29-year-old goalkeeper represents continuity in a revitalised line-up that reached the quarter-finals at Brazil 2014, but which is now aiming even higher at UEFA EURO 2016, to be played on French soil.
Discussing his position, responsibilities and ambitions, the Tottenham keeper spoke at length to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: What made you want to become a goalkeeper?
Hugo Lloris: It’s funny because it came naturally, before I’d even watched a game on TV or in the flesh. I was more into tennis when I was young, but I sometimes played on a little pitch next to my club, with two chairs as a goal. I was immediately attracted to the idea of keeping goal. And when I started to play football for a club, I began to really take an interest in goalkeepers, like Peter Schmeichel and Fabien Barthez. It appealed to me because of the responsibilities it involved, which made me feel different. I didn’t do it to stand out, but because I wanted to be useful in some way and help my team.
Do you think you could have been an outfield player?
It actually gave it a go when I was about seven or eight because I wanted to try something else. I started to push further up the pitch, to play rush keeper. We played on little seven-a-side pitches and I’d bring the ball out with my feet and try with my left to lob the opposing keeper with my clearances. I then tried playing up front, and I really enjoyed it. But then when I signed for OGC Nice, Dominique Baratelli persuaded me to go back into goal. I was ten, and that’s when things started to get serious for me.
When did you realise that you could make it as a professional goalkeeper?
I always struck a balance between my schoolwork and football. Though football was in the back of my mind, I put school first right through to my A levels. I got my chance with Nice when I was 18, first in the League Cup, then in the French Cup and finally in the league. It all started very early and quickly for me, and I was already pretty mature and had things clear in my head.
Barthez said that goalkeepers don’t get the recognition they deserve. Do you agree with him?
Maybe it was different in his day, but I don’t think that’s the case any more, thanks in no small part to Fabien, who changed goalkeeping because he really liked to play the ball. Modern football is very challenging for goalkeepers because they have the job of starting moves now. It’s a responsibility that I’m aware of every day at Tottenham, because we like to build from the back and we avoid hitting long balls, which means I have to be alert when I’m making decisions and taking risks. Goalkeepers have to be players at heart now. Coaches demand nothing less. It’s an 11-a-side sport, not ten-a-side, and keepers play their part.
Which of your goalkeeping peers do you admire?
There’s [Gianluigi] Buffon, who’s a living legend and a role model when it comes to longevity and consistency. He’s developed his game over time, and at 38 he’s seen several generations of players come and go, as well as different styles of play. He’s handled it all brilliantly. Another keeper I like a lot is David De Gea, who’s been excellent with Manchester United, and then there’s Manuel Neuer and Thibaut Courtois, of course, who need no introduction. There are a lot of very good keepers around who are great examples for the coming generations.
Didier Deschamps was an outstanding leader for Les Bleus. Has he proved an inspiration for you as captain?
He’s the national team coach now, so he has to take a different approach these days, though he’s always been a leader. It’s good to take things from everyone and then find your own way, one you’re comfortable with. Deschamps was a fantastic captain, like Michel Platini and others before him. They’re leaders who were greats in their day and it’s because of them that winning is an obligation when you play for France.
Did you always want to be a captain?
Not when I was young, no. A goalkeeper has to be a little bit of a captain and has to take responsibilities in the penalty area and even in their own half of the pitch, where they have to command their defensive line. If you look at my career, I was a captain with the youth team at Lyon and with Tottenham, and I’ve been France captain for a while now. I must have something that coaches sense and appreciate, though it’s not something I’ve made a point of looking for. There are definitely a few criteria that are important, like setting an example on the pitch and with my performances. I’ve become something of a veteran now in relation to the younger players, even though I’m still only 29.
There are quite a lot of new faces in the France team, especially in attack, where there’s no lack of talent. As a senior member of the side, what do you demand of them?
Football and society are changing and we can’t all think the same way about certain things. When I started out, social media and all the things that come with it didn’t exist. Relationships were straightforward, face to face, over a coffee or in a restaurant. I accept that it’s a part of our everyday lives now, but it shouldn’t have too much influence over how we interact with each other. We have to be very careful because all sorts of media like to cover it. Aside from communication, we also have a duty to be responsible and to perform when we play for the national team. It’s not getting the call to Les Bleus that’s the hardest thing, but to stay there.
France have done well when hosting major competitions in the past, like in 1984 and 1998, though being the home side is not always easy, as we saw with Brazil in 2014. Is it an advantage for you be on home soil at UEFA EURO 2016 or does it put extra pressure on you?
There is pressure, for sure, but you have to turn it into something positive. It’s going to be a privilege for us to wear the France shirt in front of our fans in a major competition like the EUROs. It’s a big deal for us, and we have to make the absolute most of it. We need to enjoy it and entertain the people of France too and give ourselves hope. It’s always an advantage to have the fans on your side. I’ve played in some big competitions, in South Africa in 2010, Ukraine in 2012 and Brazil in 2014, and we’ve always felt there was something missing, even though we had supporters who made the trip. It’ll be different this time. France fans can be great fans, and it’s up to us to show lots of positive energy on the pitch.