- Twenty years ago France won their one and only world title, on home soil
- Laurent Blanc looks back on Les Bleus’ victorious campaign
- Former compares 1998 squad with current generation
France would like nothing better than to see Kylian Mbappe, one of world football’s brightest young stars, inspire Les Bleus to a second world title at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. The Paris Saint-Germain striker was not even born when the first was won, on home soil on 12 July 1998, a day on which Laurent Blanc hoisted the Trophy aloft.
Yet like all French football fans, the young Mbappe is very familiar with the story of how that legendary triumph took shape, not least the part that the man they call Le President played in it. The scorer of a golden goal in the Round-of-16 tie against Paraguay, Blanc went on to pick up a red card in the semi-final against Croatia, causing him to miss out on the Final.
In the two decades since then, the former central defender has forged a successful coaching career, and recently took part in the Final Draw for Russia 2018, an occasion on which he was able to get close once more to a Trophy that has brought him so much joy and so many happy memories. To mark the 20th anniversary of French football’s finest hour, Blanc looked back on France 1998 in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Twenty years on from France 1998, give us three words that sum up the whole experience?
Laurent Blanc: ‘Work', a lot of work, especially ahead of the World Cup. Our success also came down to near-perfect preparation. The coaches put us through a tough preparation schedule but it got us in great physical shape; you only have to look at that last match against Brazil, where we were physically stronger. The longer the tournament went on, the fitter the team got. Then there’s ‘joy’, because we experienced a lot of things together and over a long period of time, which is not easy. Bonds are formed and you come together as a group. And there’s ‘victory’ too. Victory is the ultimate. It’s the most important thing in sport. You can put a lot of effort in but there’s only ever one team that comes out on top in the end. And we had the joy of being that team. Winning a World Cup is a wonderful thing, and winning for your country is even more special. It brings more joy, more excitement, more everything.
You were the hero of the last-16 tie against Paraguay, scoring the all-important golden goal. What special memories do you have of that match?
I remember it being very tough before I scored. The opposition posed us more problems in that match than in any other. It was probably the only game in the competition that we didn’t control. The relief we felt at getting the goal was only matched by the struggle we’d had during it. That was the moment when we realised we could go all the way, when we realised that success was within our grasp.
What were you doing that far forward at that stage of the game?
I had no business being there, but there comes a time when you have to try and take responsibilities. And if it comes off it’s great. If we’d conceded, though, then I think I would have got blamed for it. But we wanted to win the match because it was the gateway to the quarter-finals. I think the country knew that France, having taken so much criticism before the competition, could go on and win the World Cup.
France’s hopes of winning the semi-final against Croatia took a dent when you were sent off. Did the knowledge that you were going to miss the Final spoil the moment for you?
I said it 20 years ago and I’ll say it again 20 years later: I made a mistake. We’d been awarded a free-kick so I didn’t have to do what I went and did (Blanc pushed Slaven Bilic in the face), though the Croatian did get his hand round my waist. But it’s part of my World Cup, of my World Cup story. That’s how football works – when you’re sent off you miss the next match. And when it’s a semi-final, the next match is the final. I made a mistake, but it would have been even harder to bear if we’d ended up losing. Don’t forget that we went 1-0 down in that game, the first time we’d gone behind all tournament. We reacted and equalised and then we got a second goal. Thanks to me we ended the game a man down, though we still managed to get the win again.
You’ve just played a part in another World Cup, as an assistant at the Final Draw for Russia 2018. What’s your relationship with the competition?
Things change a lot when you win the World Cup. It changes your life as a player and it changes the way others look at you. You’re a part of the global football family but you’re also part of that small family of World Cup winners.
The strength of the current France team lies in attack. Do you think there’s a case for comparing it to the defensive strength the 1998 team had?
Yes, but it’s better to have that potential up front because that’s harder to find. I’m not saying that it’s easier to unearth players who are good defenders, but you tend to come across a lot more of them than talented players who can score goals. And it’s also easier to prevent goals from being scored than to score them.
Does the current generation have the talent to win the World Cup?
The talent, yes. There aren’t that many teams with that much potential in attack. We lack maturity and experience because they’re young players, but you can’t ask them to have talent and the impudence of youth and to have experience too. That’s impossible. If you manage to get a good mix of experienced players and these very gifted youngsters, then we might just have something exciting on our hands. If I’m objective about it, there are teams who are bigger favourites than France. But France has the potential to make its presence felt, and I think opposing teams can see that, which is a good thing in itself.