As unprecedented as it was unexpected, France’s triumph at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Trinidad and Tobago 2001 remains one of the greatest feats in the nation’s footballing history.
Names like Anthony Le Tallec, Jacques Faty, Jeremy Berthod and Mourad Meghni will forever be associated with that remarkable achievement, but also remembered for the great hopes that were once placed in them. Yet out of the 21 players that made up the Bleuets squad 15 years ago, only one ever managed to earn a cap for the French senior team: Florent Sinama-Pongolle.
“There was a lot of expectation on our shoulders, and there’s no doubt that I didn’t meet them,” the man in question told FIFA.com. “You can always do better, and my career might have turned out differently had I not made such rushed decisions or had certain injuries that slowed down my progress. But I know that I also got to live my dream, and that is something you can’t put a price on. I played at a high level, even at the highest level, with Liverpool in particular. Not everyone gets that kind of opportunity.”
It was actually a quirk of fate that led to the Reunion-born forward’s inclusion in Jean-François Jodar’s squad back in 2001. Initially left out, he eventually replaced an injured team-mate at the last minute, and took full advantage of the chance offered to him, scoring nine goals – a tournament record that he held until 2015 – and capturing the trophy, adidas Golden Ball and adidas Golden Boot.
“I remember it as if it were yesterday,” he said. “I enjoyed some indescribable moments in Trinidad and Tobago. It obviously changed my life. It was even more memorable and special because of how far it was from France. We couldn’t really feel the passion and enthusiasm there was for the team at the time. Social networks didn’t exist back then.
“And then we got back from the tournament, and it was clear our lives would never be the same again. We were in great demand; people started to recognise us in the street. It was very strange. Simply taking part in that type of competition is fantastic, but the fact that we won is why I’m talking about it today and why I’ll still be talking about it in 20 years’ time. It’s something that will be with me forever.”
A product of Le Havre’s youth system, like Paul Pogba and Riyad Mahrez, Sinama-Pongolle chose – like the aforementioned duo – to further his career and develop his potential in England. At Liverpool, he showed flashes of that potential, contributing to the 2004/2005 UEFA Champions League run that saw the Reds crowned in Istanbul.
Subsequently, the young Frenchman left the Premier League for Spain, where he enjoyed three solid seasons, first at Recreativo Huelva and then at Atletico Madrid. His strong performances led to a senior call-up for France, then coached by Raymond Domenech.
“In a career, there are moments when you’re in the limelight, and others when you’re away from it. Things were really clicking for me at Recreativo. And then I left for Atletico, which is a decision I regret greatly. I should have been more patient. That’s when things started to go downhill for me because after that I signed for Sporting Lisbon, and personal problems [Editor’s note: his daughter was involved in a serious accident] and sporting issues all got mixed up together,” he recalled.
Further adventures would follow in Spain (Real Zaragoza), France (Saint-Etienne), Russia (FC Rostov), USA (Chicago Fire), Switzerland (Lausanne), Scotland (Dundee United), and finally Thailand (Chainat Hornbill), his current country of residence. Although the league was recently suspended following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Sinama-Pongolle had, prior to the hiatus, found the net 12 times in nine matches.
“I’m delighted; I’ve really found my form again,” he said. “It’s often been said to me that once you get past 30, you start a second career, and I think that’s true. I had a run of injuries, failures and disappointments, but I’ve been able to bounce back here. I’m happy.
“Naysayers will point out that it’s 'only' the Thai league, but I’d ask them to come and see the level for themselves. This league can be favourably compared with the Scottish league, in my opinion. Of course, there’s still some work to do. The league is young – for example, the club that I’m playing for has only been around for seven years - but its growth is exponential. Football is everywhere in Thailand.”
Although 15 years have passed since France’s win in Trinidad and Tobago and Sinama-Pongolle has just celebrated his 32nd birthday, his passion for the beautiful game is as intense as it was when he was thrown in at the deep end at the U-17 World Cup
“Nothing’s changed from that point of view,” confirmed the sprightly attacker. “I’ve always had a desire to play, to score goals and to experience magical moments with my team-mates.”
What would be his advice for the young starlets getting ready to take part in the next U-17 World Cup in India? “I would advise them to truly make the most of the event and of the experience, and of course to give their all, as there is no better springboard for a football career. I should know. The tournament will remain etched in my memories,” he concluded.