There is no doubt that the late 1990s and early 2000s was a golden era for French football. Following Les Bleus’ FIFA World Cup™ victory on home soil in 1998 and their memorable march to glory at UEFA EURO 2000, French suppporters feted their favourites like never before.
The future also looked bright when, a year later, Les Bleuets defeated Nigeria 3-0 at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain to capture the FIFA U-17 World Cup Trinidad and Tobago 2001 title. Back then, the team was led by a pair of talented cousins bursting with confidence, namely Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec.
That self-belief, which helped them eclipse young starlets like Spain’s Fernando Torres and Argentina’s Carlos Tevez in the Caribbean, has taken a few knocks in the intervening years, with their careers never quite reaching the heights expected of them. But aged just 26, time remains on the side of the resilient Gallic duo, as they explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“Players like Torres and Tevez have always been capable of winning a match single-handedly," said Sinama-Pongolle. "In our case, in 2001, it was more a question of effective teamwork rather than individual brilliance."
Le Tallec pointed out: “And those top performers at big-name clubs tend to be highly regarded by coaches, who will hand them the captain’s armband in the blink of an eye. It’s a shame that we’ve not always benefitted from that type of morale boost, as it would definitely have brought out the best in us.”
Sinama-Pongolle and Le Tallec, the respective adidas Golden Ball and adidas Silver Ball winners in Trinidad and Tobago, were certainly at their best on 30 September 2001, the day they claimed the world title. While the former took the competition by storm with his cool finishing - he scored a total of nine goals, which remains a tournament record to this day - and tireless running, the latter stood out for his vision and countless assists.
But one of the greatest factors in their success was the partnership they forged together. “I’ve never been able to develop the same understanding on the football pitch with anyone else since,” confirmed Le Tallec. And it was this very synergy that would raise their profile enormously back home, a situation summed up succinctly by Sinama-Pongolle: “In the space of a few weeks, we went from being nobodies to household names.”
Labouring at Liverpool
Europe’s top clubs were now very much aware of the talented twosome. After having grown up and come through the ranks together in Le Havre’s youth academy, the attack-minded cousins, born just 17 days apart in October 1984, were signed as a pair for Liverpool in 2003.
“We were brought in by a Frenchman, Gerard Houllier, to play in a Liverpool side that at the time could count on Emile Heskey, Harry Kewell, Michael Owen and others up front. When you’re just 19, with very little experience, it’s tough when you’re up against that kind of quality,” said Sinama-Pongolle.
With playing time at Anfield at a premium, the inseparable Frenchmen found it difficult to live up to the massive expectations placed on their young shoulders. “But we made good progress, and the club did win the Champions League while we were there,” recalled Le Tallec.
In their quest for regular football, however, they were forced to move on to pastures new, taking distinct paths for the very first time. They were both sent out on loan – Sinama-Pongolle to Blackburn Rovers; his compatriot to Saint-Etienne and Sunderland.
Soon they would be packing their bags again, in an attempt to resurrect their respective careers. Sinama-Pongolle headed for Spain, where he signed for Recreativo Huelva; Le Tallec ended up back in France at Le Mans, by way of Sochaux.
They both blossomed in their new surroundings, playing often, scoring and regaining the confidence that had been slowly ebbing away. Between 2006 and 2008, Sinama-Pongolle registered 22 goals, while Le Tallec notched up nine in a deep-lying forward role.
While the Le Mans forward opted to remain under the tutelage of Paulo Duarte, the coach he still credits with getting his career back on track, his good friend took a step back up the football ladder, signing for Atletico Madrid.
“I scored four goals during the month that Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero were injured, which led to the wonderful opportunity to play for France. But then they both got their fitness back, and Forlan went on to score 32 times. How could I compete with that?” said the Reunion Island-born striker.
Finding first-team opportunities limited once again, Sinama-Pongolle tried his luck in Portugal with Sporting, but his stint in Lusitanian football was short-lived, as family problems hindered his efforts to settle.
Around the same time, Le Tallec was unable to save Les Ciel et Marine from relegation to Ligue 2, but his excellent performances not only prompted Auxerre to make a move for him in the summer of 2010, but also caught the eye of France coach Laurent Blanc.
“The coach included me in a preliminary squad for the Norway game at the beginning of the season, and although I didn’t make the final cut, it shows that I was in his thoughts," said Le Tallec. "It’s now down to me to put in displays with my club that persuade him to call me up.”
Now enjoying a productive loan spell at Zaragoza, with four goals and considerable playing time to his name, Sinama-Pongolle also seems to have found his way again. “I’ve regained my love for the game, there’s a good atmosphere in the squad and I’m working under Javier Aguirre, a coach that I really respect,” he said.
As for his own international prospects, he remains hopeful: “The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is something that I dream about. It might be the best one yet. All I can do is give myself the best possible chance to be a part of it.”
Le Tallec, meanwhile, saw his chances of impressing the national coach diminish recently, when an unfortunate injury sidelined him for almost four months. Now back playing, he remains upbeat. “To pull on the France jersey alongside Florent again would be an amazing feeling – we just have to keep believing in ourselves,” he concluded.
As the ups and downs of the duo’s respective careers have shown, a little confidence can go a long way.