Bixente Lizarazu can lay claim to one of the most impressive CVs of any French footballer. A key member of France’s 1998 FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO 2000-winning sides, he also amassed a vast collection of medals at club level, notably with German giants Bayern Munich. After drawing a line under his glittering playing career following a second spell in Bavaria, the hard-running former Bordeaux left-back has gone on to become one of his country’s most in-demand football pundits.
Taking time out from featuring on some of France’s leading radio and TV outlets, as well as in the sporting press, Lizarazu graciously agreed to share his insight in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. He discussed the renaissance of the French national team, the current state of Europe’s major leagues and, of course, the highs and lows of his own playing career.
FIFA.com: Bixente, as a former France international, what’s your verdict on their EURO 2012 qualifying campaign?
Bixente Lizarazu: I felt that the team were making progress during the first part of the qualifiers but after that it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, featuring some quality displays and other poor ones. Things went pretty well in the first six months, notably the game in Bosnia which I thought was a real success and which, in my opinion, stands out as a landmark match. We’ve seen talented new players such as Yann M'Vila emerge, but I feel that the team found the going harder from March on.
How would you explain those dips in form?
There have been a lot of factors. First of all was the re-inclusion of those players who were suspended after the 2010 World Cup, which was no easy task for Laurent Blanc. I think that has caused a few problems in terms of morale in the squad.
Do you think that’s the main reason, the returns of the likes of Franck Ribery, Patrice Evra and Eric Abidal?
Among others. Of course that’s not the only reason, but it’s played a part. First of all those players came back with a lot of pressure on their shoulders, and that meant they didn’t perform well straightaway. And then you have the fact that what happened in South Africa was really chaotic for France and French football. It complicated things for this qualifying campaign and we had to fight right to the end [in the final qualifier] against Bosnia to seal a place at the next EURO. That was a very tight contest and Bosnia played superbly in the first half! The penalty that Samir Nasri put away gave us a bit of breathing space, but they pushed us all the way.
You hit the heights with France in 1998 and 2000, but also experienced lows at Korea/Japan 2002, when Les Bleus exited at the group stage. In your view, what makes the difference between success and failure at a major international tournament?
In a career at the highest level, you’re put to the test constantly and inevitably taste defeat along the way. Even the greatest sportspeople, whatever their sport, know what losing feels like. The most important thing is also to experience great victories, make your own slice of history and win medals. We’ve all lost, we’ve all had bad games and we’ve all had competitions that went wrong. But [France] also went all the way twice. I’d say there’s an enormous difference between winning and losing a final, almost a world of difference!
Do you think that your former France team-mate Laurent Blanc can instil the same winning mentality in his charges that drove you all on back then?
That’s the idea! There’s the EURO coming up, then there’s also the 2014 World Cup to think about. Aside from winning matches, Laurent has brought Karim Benzema back into the fold and blooded the likes of Yann M'Vila and Marvin Martin, who play one- and two-touch football and can speed up the play in midfield. We’ve seen quite a few new faces emerge and you can sense the start of something new with the French team. But it’s still a work in progress, the side’s not solid in every area of the pitch. We’re still some way behind Spain, the Netherlands or Germany.
You spent the majority of your career at Bordeaux and Bayern Munich. What did get out of your time at both clubs?
They’re the two teams where I was able to grow as a player over a number of years, and the ones I’m most fond of. After a short stint at Marseille, I was fortunate enough to go back and finish my career at Bayern, signing off after winning two league and cup doubles and being voted the Bundesliga’s best left-back. That’s always a tricky period for a sportsman: you’re constantly fighting a race against time and you ask yourself when is the right moment to call it a day. Bayern Munich is an extraordinary club, with a fantastic culture, which is run by very good people and where the demands surrounding the football professionals are extremely high. Bordeaux was more about learning, coming through the academy, the friends I made. There wasn’t a culture of winning at all costs and I didn’t win a lot of trophies there, but it’s where I grew up and it enabled me to make that step later on in Germany.
Was it at Bordeaux where you built up your famous mutual understanding with Zinedine Zidane, a chemistry that you later reproduced at international level?
Yes, with Christophe Dugarry too! That’s where our triangular interplay first began, though that period didn’t last for long as Zizou went off to Juventus and Duga to AC Milan. But we’d worked on those moves so often that every time we lined up together for France the magic was still there. It was like I had a luminous presence by my side. I’d give them the ball and they’d give it back to me as carefully as if they were handing me a flower. And that isn’t easy! (laughs). Sometimes you’ll pass to a player and you know that he’ll never give you it back. As a result you stop making as many runs and the team’s play stagnates.
What’s your view on Bayern’s return to form at domestic and European level?
Well, it was only two years ago that they reached the Champions League final against Inter Milan! It’s true that last season was a total washout, but they’ve got a very good team. They’ve had a magnificent start to the season, but it’s a long road to the final of the Champions League – which will in fact be held in Munich this year. What saddens me is that there still isn't financial fair play. In my view, true champions are those that combine sporting success with good business management, and Bayern manage to do that. I don’t see why football should be exempt from economic reality: you don’t become a great team just because you’ve got huge financial resources. The last time Bayern won the Champions League was when I was there, along with the likes of Giovane Elber, Stefan Effenberg and Oliver Kahn. Back then, shortly after the Bosman ruling, the differences between the clubs were not so vast.
What do you make of the success of Barcelona, who’ve brought through so many players from their youth scheme?
They have very significant financial muscle don't forget – keeping hold of a player like Lionel Messi obviously requires you to pay him a huge salary – but their overall philosophy is very interesting. They work very hard on youth development and their style of play, which has nowadays become the absolute ideal to aim at in terms of both its efficiency and how pleasing it is on the eye. On top of that they’re very fortunate to have, in Messi, such an extraordinary player. He performs with metronomic consistency season after season and smashes every record. He’s so consistent that for some people his feats are becoming almost routine, but I think that when he stops playing everyone will realise just what an incredible talent he is.
Do you think Real Madrid can stop Barça this season?
They weren’t able to in last season’s clásicos. They’re a different kind of side, but they’re still a very impressive winning machine! And when I see the way they beat Lyon 4-0 [on 18 October in Champions League Group D], it shows they’re even stronger than last term. Their team isn’t as exquisite as Barça’s, but even though they’ve got a different style they can prove equally fearsome. In my opinion they’re the two favourites for this season’s Champions League.