Willy Sagnol is a football fan through and through. Not only because of the 58 international caps he earned with France, or the countless titles won with Monaco and Bayern Munich, but also thanks to the unforgettable experiences the game has showered upon him. Now a new challenge awaits the 36-year-old. As technical director of the French Football Federation (FFF), the former right-back can hardly wait to accompany some of his country’s finest young talent to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013.
“As a country Turkey is an unbelievably mad about football,” Sagnol recently told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview in Istanbul. “Participating at this tournament will be an important experience for our young players because they’ll get to know another country, a different culture and a different type of spectator.” Sagnol, who finished as runner-up at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, as well as winning the UEFA Champions League in 2001, knows what he is talking about. After all, he was part of the French team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Malaysia 1997.
Sagnol, whose new role with the FFF is primarily to form a bridge between the youth teams and the senior side, is enthusiastic about the importance of international youth tournaments. “I think it’s fantastic that the participating teams will meet sides from different continents in their groups. Football in Africa is different to how it is in Europe, and in Asia the game is played differently than in South America. We’re really looking forward to the challenge this summer.”
In Group A France will face Ghana, Spain and USA. “We’re happy with the draw. It won’t be easy but we’ve got some great games ahead of us,” said Sagnol. “We’ll stay in Istanbul for the first three matches. It’s always good to remain in the same city for the group stage of a tournament.” Sagnol is optimistic about his young compatriots’ chances, despite going up against European champions Spain: “Two teams get to qualify for the next round. I hope it’ll be France and Spain.”
Turkey 2013 will only be the fourth time France have featured at a tournament at this level. A fourth-placed finish at the previous edition in Colombia two years ago was Les Bleuets’ best achievement to date. While Sagnol is a firm believer in the importance of the players’ continued development, rather than merely focusing on results, he is confident the youngsters can take the title. “We’ve got a good group of lads and a very experienced coach. Within the federation we’ll be doing everything we can to make sure the boys arrive at the World Cup in good shape in order to be able to compete. With us it’s the same as with Spain or Germany: We enter every tournament with the intention of winning it.”
Yet Sagnol knows first-hand just how fine the line is between success and failure, especially at youth level. “You shouldn’t forget that we’re talking about football. You can only ever achieve anything with discipline and commitment, but good teams can still get knocked out in the group stage. A World Cup is a very long competition. If you want to succeed as a team, everybody needs to have patience and be willing to never lose sight of the objective, not even for one second.”
Sagnol attributes such words of wisdom to his own experiences as a youngster. “I’ve got both good and bad memories of Malaysia 1997. It was great in that it was my first international tournament with France, but the bad thing was that we got knocked out on penalties by Uruguay in the quarter-finals. We had a great team, including Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough.” 16 years on, perhaps he will be able to sample success this time, even if it is in a different capacity.