Though many strive for glory, only a few achieve it. Among them are the 20 or so France players who won the FIFA World Cup™ on home soil in 1998 – an achievement that still makes Bleus fans misty-eyed – and followed it up by triumphing at UEFA EURO 2000.
With France still very much in the running at EURO 2016, those supporters are inevitably nurturing hopes of a repeat of that golden night in Paris 18 years ago. One of their heroes in that high-achieving Bleus side was Bixente Lizarazu, now a leading football pundit on French television. Displaying the same intelligence and charisma that was a hallmark of his game, the former defender offered FIFA.com his views on Sunday’s quarter-final between the EURO 2016 hosts and Iceland at the Stade de France.
A work in progress
“I think we’ve already achieved something in qualifying [for the quarters],” he said, embarking on a frank appraisal of the performance of the side coached by his former “double”-winning team-mate Didier Deschamps. “The fact is, though, we haven’t met any really dangerous teams yet. We’ve yet to put in a complete, all-round performance, and we need to do it if we’re going to keep on making progress.”
The 46-year-old ex-defender added: “We got through the group phase largely because of the individual quality of players like Dimitri Payet. Although we didn’t play our greatest game against Republic of Ireland, we were better as a unit up front, though Antoine Griezmann obviously stood out, and not just for his goals. He was the catalyst for everything the team did going forward.”
Lizarazu saw the Atletico Madrid forward as France’s main hope of success: “I hope he’s the focal point from now on. When you think of all the talent he has, his first few games weren’t that great, so it was fantastic news for France that he had such a good match against Ireland. I think he and Payet have been the best, though Olivier Giroud has had a good tournament too, and Kingsley Coman has come on and made an impact with his pace. It’s good to have a player like him on the bench.”
Lizarazu is remembered as a complete left-back, a player with the ability to venture forward but who was, first and foremost, an extraordinarily gifted defender. A key component in a side that conceded just two goals at France 1998, he is as well qualified as anyone to discuss the merits of Les Bleus’ current back-line, and he admitted to not being entirely impressed with what he has seen to date.
“Attack-wise, we’re as good as anyone, but that’s not enough,” he explained. “We have to strike the right balance in midfield and, most importantly of all, be tighter at the back. We need to play a lot better. There’s still plenty of room for improvement and nobody knows how high France can go. I hope they can go very high.”
In analysing France’s strengths and weaknesses, and while expressing his concerns about the defence, Lizarazu felt the key to success against surprise packages Iceland lies in other areas of the pitch: “They’re a very organised team and they’re very smart at the back. I think the best way of beating them is to get more players in attack and concentrate on being patient and watchful, because Iceland have a very clear idea of how to play, which is what makes them dangerous.”
And should France clear this hurdle? Though anxious not to look too far ahead, Lizarazu did venture an opinion on what the hosts have to do if they are to go on and win the title: “Compared to other teams, we do lack a little bit of experience, though that’s not everything.
“You can pick up experience by winning games. Knockout matches aren’t like any other, and you can pay very dearly for the slightest error. From now on, the competition is only going to get stiffer, obviously. I’m optimistic, but we’ll just have to see if we’re up to the task.”
If they are, the whole of France can dream of the coming of a new generation capable of reviving memories of the glorious deeds of the Class of '98.