The crop of talent that won the Under-17 European Championship in 2004 are leading the way for Les Bleus at full international level
Although hopes of French success at Euro 2012 were not necessarily high at the tournament’s outset, several of the players selected by Laurent Blanc have been shouldering the hopes of their nation throughout their careers.
Way back in 2004, it became apparent something special may just be brewing in French football. Led by Philippe Bergeroo, France swept past all comers as they claimed the Under-17 European Championship crown in their own back yard. During the tournament, a Spain side containing Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique was twice defeated, including in the final.
Now eight years on, four of these musketeers are to the forefront of the senior team’s challenge in Poland and Ukraine.
Never quite hailed as a golden generation of players, there can be little doubt that the group of youngsters born in 1987 - and hence known as 'Generation '87' - was considered at least a squad with golden potential.
Seven players who won the title that year have graduated to become full internationals - three with other countries - but Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa are still proudly flying the flag for Les Bleus.
|After making a cameo against England, Menez was introduced into the starting XI against Ukraine and had a profound effect as he got in behind the defence regularly and ultimately opened the scoring.|
|Nasri’s Euro 2012 started with a bang as he scored France’s equaliser against England, but his celebration brought criticism from a media not unused to having a swipe at the Manchester City man. More subdued against Sweden.|
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Two of the three French goals at the tournament to date have been supplied by graduates of the class of '87, and the other, struck by Yohan Cabaye, was supplied by Benzema. There can be little doubt that this could be the tournament that the outstanding potential simply becomes outstanding.
Benzema has been a mainstay of the national team since 2007 and has accrued nearly 50 caps, but only now is he showing signs of transforming his club form with Real Madrid onto the national stage. Although it is clear that he is not necessarily suited to playing a lone striker role in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Blanc favours - he drops too deep too regularly to be completely effective - his game has matured and he now looks capable of being a focal point for the national side.
The Lyon-born striker supplied both assists in the 2-0 win over Ukraine, yet it was the performance of winger Jeremy Menez that was hailed as most influential in Les Bleus’ transformation of offensive fortunes after they looked somewhat stale against England. The Paris Saint-Germain attacker has a willingness to run behind defences that France previously lacked, and this would ultimately provide the opening goal.
Menez has always been a player of precocious talent ever since breaking through at Sochaux, yet his weakness is that he has been incredibly irregular. Now back in France with PSG after a period with Roma, he seems to finally have unlocked the secret to more consistent success.
Something of a wildcard player, Menez is keeping the equally exciting Ben Arfa out of the side. The Newcastle man has gone a long way to shake his reputation of being the ‘enfant terrible’ of the French game, and his fantastic recovery from a broken leg seems to have seen the player reborn.
While Ben Arfa is very much a man on the comeback trail, Nasri is another firmly established star. The Manchester City man, however, has rarely shown his club form on the international scene, with his outburst after equalising in the 1-1 draw against England aimed at the critical press.
If the French media were quick to point out the flaws in Nasri’s performances for the national team, the ammunition he left them with after a fine performance against the Three Lions was only over his attitude.
It was the Marseille-born star’s goal in the last minute against Spain little over six years ago that proved decisive in securing France their Under-17 title with a 2-1 victory in the final, and he and his fellow Generation ’87 team-mates may yet have the opportunity to lock horns against La Roja on an altogether greater stage.
Of course they will be hoping for a repeat performance, but they must first negotiate another test of their new-found maturity and negotiate their way by Sweden and into the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, which would in itself be a major step for France in the post-Zinedine Zidane era.