Just over a month after France suffered a disappointing exit from the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the stylish manner in which the young Les Bleus emerged triumphant at the UEFA Under-19 Championship has been met with a tremendous sense of relief by the entire French football fraternity.
In addition, by beating Spain 2-1 in the final of this prestigious tournament, France gained some revenge for the heavy 4-0 defeat they suffered at the hands of the same team in the UEFA Under-17 Championship two years ago.
This morale-boosting win is also a victory for France’s international youth set-up, as proven by their lofty position in UEFA’s youth rankings, where they lie second, just behind familiar foes Spain. FIFA.com takes a look at the winning French side, and the future prospects of its constituent parts.
While newly-installed France coach Laurent Blanc has paid careful attention to the progress made by this group of talented youngsters, he will be well aware that this trophy represents just one small building block in the reconstruction of the senior national team, which has gone through a difficult period recently. “We’re dealing with two different worlds. Having a winning team at a certain age category does not necessarily guarantee future success for the senior side,” underlines Francis Smerecki, coach of France’s victorious U-19 team.
History has proven this theory to be absolutely correct, as there are many examples of promising youth players who have been incapable of making the step up to the full international side. From the U-19 France team that were crowned European champions in 2005, so far only Yoann Gourcuff, Abou Diaby and Hugo Lloris have managed to establish themselves in the seniors.
The challenge for this batch of young players, who now find themselves under the spotlight like never before, will be learning how to deal with the added pressure and exposure that lie in store. “The stability of the team is actually the source of its success,” explains Smerecki, who took the astute decision very early on to distance himself from certain disruptive elements that were not prepared to work as a team, and who constantly reminds his players of the importance of the tactical side of the game.
The close-knit group now has two further targets on the horizon. The first, openly declared, is to lift the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2011 in Colombia. The second, more subtle goal is for the players involved to break into the first-team set-up within their respective clubs, so that their international adventures can continue. “At 20, there will always be a certain skimming-off of personnel,” says Erick Mombaerts, France U-21 coach.
Team of individual talents
While solid, unselfish teamwork is a hallmark of this France side, it also contains some outstanding individuals. Chelsea’s Gael Kakuta, a skilful left-footed attacking midfielder, is doubtless the biggest potential star. A product of Lens’ youth system, he joined the London club at the tender age of 16. Having made a name for himself in the reserves, he now faces the tough task of working his way into a Chelsea starting XI already bursting with world-class performers.
Among the six Lyon players in the France squad, the free-scoring Yanis Tafer, and the versatile Alexandre Lacazette, who came off the bench to net the winner in Friday’s final, both look to have promising careers ahead of them. Antoine Griezmann constitutes a slightly different case. After having failed to convince several French clubs – put off by his diminutive frame – of his worth during a series of trials, the sprightly winger was then spotted by Real Sociedad.
His father, with whom Griezmann had honed his skills while searching for a club, was initially reticent for his son to leave the country at the age of 14, but was eventually persuaded by the Spanish outfit to sanction a youth contract. The decision proved to be a sensible one, as the young Frenchman has gone on to become one of the Basque club’s key players, playing an important part in their successful promotion campaign last season.
Almost every member of France’s all-conquering U-19 side will now find themselves attracting interest from some of the biggest clubs in Europe. In order to truly fulfil their potential, they could do worse than bear in mind the warning given by Laurent Blanc when appointed to the role of national coach: “The French national team should always guide players’ career choices.”