France’s other 1998 vintage

Any mention of ‘1998’ and ‘Zidane’ tends to spark an immediate reaction from French football fans, who still treasure the memories of their nation’s FIFA World Cup™ victory that year, the same year that all of the players competing for Les Bleuets at the ongoing FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015 – including a certain Luca Zidane – were born.

Those same fans will be hoping that the series of coincidences does not stop there, and that goalkeeper Zidane, son of the French football icon, can ultimately follow in his father’s footsteps and inspire a golden generation of players to glory on the global stage.

“Lots of people think that because we were born in the same year that France won the World Cup, it’s written in the stars that we’ll go all the way here and that we’re part of a similarly gifted generation,” said U-17 team captain Timothe Cognat. “We don’t really pay much attention to all that superstitious stuff, really – we didn’t choose our date of birth, after all,” he added bluntly.

It is not unusual for a particular crop of footballers to be compared to one that went before them. For example, Zinedine Zidane and Co. grew up in the shadow of Michel Platini, while France's FIFA U-20 World Cup-winning side have also been compared to the fabled 1998 world champions. And just as Zidane actually admired Enzo Francescoli more than the former Juventus playmaker, France’s U-17 players look up to idols that have often been chosen for reasons other than historical achievements.

“It’s more the current players who serve as role models, because we see the things they do live on TV. And so inevitably we don’t talk about the World Cup winners as much,” explained Cognat, who, despite his position of midfielder, has drawn inspiration from a goalkeeper.

Crucial communication “Hugo Lloris is the player I look up to,” said the Lyon teenager. “He tends to set a good example, and I like the way that he’s always focused and in his own little bubble when he walks out onto the pitch. I think that’s amazing. I try to do as he does, but sometimes you have to have a laugh too!”

As the French squad knows only too well, it is often the teams that get on well both on and off the pitch that go far in major tournaments. Indeed, Cognat, in his role of skipper, often finds himself trying to find a balance between those two aspects.

“The coach will ask me to get my team-mates to focus more, but it’s not always easy,” he said. “I’ll sometimes raise my voice with other players, and they’ll shout back from time to time. Everyone in the team says things to each other in the heat of the moment, and everyone accepts that it’s part of the game.”

There was no shortage of frank exchanges during Les Bleuets’ most difficult fixture of the group stage, a turbulent 4-3 victory over a resilient Paraguay XI, who came back from a 2-0 deficit to draw level at one point. “It was a tricky match,” said Cognat, still angry at himself for missing a chance that would have finished off the game.

A goal from Nanitamo Ikone and a handful of high-quality saves from Zidane enabled France to eventually pocket all three points, but the scoreline did not gloss over the need for improvement in certain areas.

“As soon as we scored the second goal, we thought the game was in the bag,” admitted the young captain. “We took our foot off the pedal well before half-time. Everyone forgot that we needed to keep playing as a team. That led us into trouble and allowed Paraguay to get their confidence back. The roles were suddenly reversed, and we then found it tough for the rest of the match.”

Forging their own path Of course, it is not the first time that a French side has dug deep to defeat Paraguay in a closely contested encounter – on their way to lifting the World Cup in 1998, France squeezed past La Albirroja to reach the quarter-finals courtesy of an extra-time golden goal from Laurent Blanc.

Despite the mention of yet another curious coincidence, Cognat refuses to compare the two ventures. “It’s incredible to win a World Cup; we’re very happy that France managed to do it,” he said impassively. “But most importantly, it was a great experience for the players involved. We’re going to try to experience the same thing and write our own little piece of history.”

The next chapter of France’s adventure in Chile will be written in their upcoming Round of 16 clash versus Costa Rica. If the French do eventually succeed in holding aloft the trophy, perhaps they will one day serve as a source of inspiration themselves for the many footballers-to-be born in 2015.