One of only four previous winners set to line up at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007, the others being Brazil, Ghana and Nigeria, France will be the only European side on Korean soil to have lifted the coveted trophy. In winning the competition at Trinidad and Tobago 2001, the French became only the second Europeans to emerge victorious at the elite event, following on from the former Soviet Union's success in 1987. However, far from marking the start of the new dawn for French football, France's U-17s subsequently plunged into a barren spell. Having failed to qualify for the tournaments in 2003 and 2005, Les Bleuets are back after a six-year absence.
Francois Blaquart, the man who masterminded the French revival, will be hoping his young charges can follow in the footsteps of those members of the 2001 generation now catching the eye across the European game. Monaco's Jeremy Berthod, Recreativo Huelva front-runner Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Marseille's Jacques Faty were all part of that triumphant Caribbean adventure.
The 2007 crop have thus far based their success firmly on defensive solidity, exemplified by captain Mamadou Sakho of Paris Saint-Germain, the only player to have already tasted professional first-team football. With Sakho and Co. shoring up the backline, Blaquart can call on a host of promising attacking players whose pace and clinical finishing fired France to the last four of May's UEFA Under-17 European Championship. Among their number is Damien Le Tallec, whose older brother Anthony was one of the stars of the 2001 campaign.
Drawn against opponents of the quality of Spain, Germany and the Ukraine, qualification from Group A was never going to be easy. Nevertheless, the battling Bleuets bounced back from a 2-0 opening-game reverse at the hands of eventual winners Spain with a crucial win over a powerful German outfit. A goal down to Toni Kroos' 24-minute strike, up popped Le Tallec to score twice in 11 second-half minutes to turn France's fortunes around.
Going into their final group game against the Ukraine with one hand on that all-important second spot, the Mini-Bleus eventually came away with the point that sealed their place at Korea 2007. Having cruised into a two-goal lead at half-time through Yann M'Vila and Thibault Bourgeois, France appeared to switch off after the interval. Lacking in concentration and visibly tense, Blaquart's young charges were a shadow of their first-half selves, Artur Karnoza and Dmytro Korishko taking full advantage to level the match at 2-2. Perilously close to losing the game on the stroke of full time, it took a quality save from keeper Mathieu Gorgelin to secure a draw in the face of severe Ukrainian pressure. With qualification safely in the bag, the Bleuets' bid for continental glory ended with a 1-0 semi-final defeat against England.
Francois Blaquart is a pioneering figure in the youth development system that has been a hallmark of French football's recent success. With youth development experience spanning over 30 years, Blaquart has worked with gifted youngsters at Nantes, Saint-Etienne and Sochaux, all clubs famed for the quality of their youth set-ups. A born educator, Blaquart's only playing experience came for amateur side Entente Roumazieres - Loubert in the 1970s.
Blaquart joined the French Football Association in 1999, taking charge of the U-16 then the U-19 side before joining the senior international set-up in 2002. He then travelled to UEFA EURO 2004 in Portugal as assistant to then head coach Jacques Santini, where Les Bleus bowed out in the quarter-finals against the eventual winners Greece. "I found the experience with the senior side very interesting. That's where I learned just how demanding football at the highest level is. But it's true that I enjoy coaching youngsters just as much. They are more attentive, more adaptable and somewhat purer." In his latest role, Blaquart took the reins of the U-17 national team in 2005. He has since led them to the semi-finals of the UEFA Under-17 European Championship 2007, in the process sealing qualification for this year's showpiece tournament in Korea.
Many of the world's finest players took their first steps to international stardom at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, but very few of those had played top-flight football even before celebrating their 17th birthday. Having already made several appearances in France's Championnat, as well as two in the UEFA Cup, Mamadou Sakho has done just that. The PSG man played a part in ensuring the capital club retained their first-division status, and is the only player in the current French U-17 squad to have tasted professional action. His experience and defensive solidity earned Sakho the captain's armband at May's UEFA U-17 European Championship, and the onus is on the powerful youngster to repeat his sterling club performances over on Korean soil.
What they said...
"Our objective was to qualify for the World Cup. We're very happy to be going to Korea and we feel confident that we can achieve something over there."(Francois Blaquart, France U-17 coach)
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