It is difficult to look at Eric Abidal’s France career without conjuring up thoughts of Lilian Thuram, the retired Les Bleus legend whose path he has almost seemed to mimic. Both were first called up as full-backs only to become rocks at the heart of the defence and both started out at Monaco before defending the famous colours of European giants Barcelona.
There are, of course, one or two crucial differences. Thuram called time on his playing days in 2008 after tasting FIFA World Cup™ glory in 1998 and adding a UEFA EURO title two years later, while Abidal has yet to clinch a major trophy on the international stage. Aged 30, the Barça left-back nonetheless has time to catch up with his illustrious predecessor, and he does not intend to wait much longer.
With South Africa 2010 now just months away, the Lyon native is also hoping to erase the painful memories of losing to Italy in the final four years ago. “I can’t forget that defeat,” he explained to FIFA.com, having also inherited Thuram’s openness with the press. “We came so close. It’s still a bit early to know whether we can repeat that performance, but in a tournament at this level, what’s certain is that we’ll need to be perfect in all we do.”
Work to be done
Perfection certainly seemed a long way off during the qualifiers, when Raymond Domenech’s side finished behind Serbia in a manageable group and needed an extra-time goal to see off the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs. Few would pinpoint that record as belonging to potential future world champions come July. “There have been a lot of changes since 2006,” commented Abidal, seeking to explain France’s qualification troubles. “[Zinedine] Zidane, Thuram and [Claude] Makelele are no longer around, and nor is [Patrick] Vieira. We have lots of young players. We need to do a lot of work, first to understand each other on the pitch and also to understand each other off it, which is never easy. After that, we need to work to play well and get the right results.”
The defender ought to have a firm grasp on what it takes to obtain results after collecting three consecutive French titles with Lyon and having since become a stalwart of the Barcelona side that racked up a historic six trophies in 2009. Fulfilling left-back duties for world football’s leading club team clearly brings no international assurances, though, and despite playing there during the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final, Abidal later lost his place to Patrice Evra. What could have been a morale-sapping blow proved to be an opportunity, however, and Abidal promptly bounced back in a central defensive role, his preferred position at the back. Indeed, he has emerged as the ideal partner to William Gallas in France’s rearguard, relegating the likes of Sebastien Squillaci, Julien Escude, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Philippe Mexes to the bench.
Based on recent team selections, Gallas and Abidal ought to be trusted in the middle again when Les Bleus kick off their FIFA World Cup campaign with a testing first outing against Uruguay. “They have very technical players like Argentina and Brazil,” said Abidal of the South American team. “Added to that, they fight extremely hard. We won’t just have to play well, we’ll also have to put in plenty of effort to match them in that aspect of the game.” Next up after that encounter will be Mexico, who are likely to feature one of Abidal's Barça colleagues in their ranks. “Myself and Rafa Marquez are already talking about it every day,” he said. “They’re a team who play very well, never give up and know how to lift themselves for the big games. As soon as the draw was made, I know it would be difficult.”
France’s third Group A outing against South Africa is unlikely to provide much reprieve either, as an entire nation will be willing the hosts on to victory against their European rivals. “It’s historic for South Africa and to be directly involved in it will be an honour for the France team,” added Abidal, who is wary of the pressure that will come in that game. “It will be tough because the fans will be backing their team to the hilt.”
The former Lille player knows exactly how important support of that kind can be on the road to success. “Ever since I was a youngster, I’ve always wanted to be a footballer, but I nearly gave it all up when I had a serious injury,” he explained, looking back on his early years. “But then one day my mother said to me: ‘Football is your dream and you can make it. I’d really like to see you play a bit more.’ Look where I am today! Right now, if you asked every child what they dream of doing when they grow up, millions would tell you they want to become footballers. I’m lucky enough to have done that and to have made a career out of my passion.”
Ask French football fans their wishes for this summer and you would no doubt generate even more of a consensus. Millions are already hoping Les Bleus can return to the global summit – and that is one more dream Abidal would be delighted to help come true.