Welcome to a brand new series on Get French Football News, where we break down the best French footballers that the country has had to offer from generation to generation, starting with 1985 and working our way up to 2005, in a 21-part set of features.
Goalkeeper – Steve Mandanda (Olympique de Marseille)
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to an electrician and a care-giver, Mandanda moved to France at the age of two and quickly got into boxing, spending two years training in this sporting realm before moving into football, notably featuring for Le Havre’s Coupe Gambardella side at just 15 years of age. He has three brothers, all of whom are also goalkeepers: Parfait (Hartford Athletic), Riffi (Rennes), Over (US Créteil). Currently Didier Deschamps’ second choice in the French national team, Mandanda has enjoyed arguably his greatest club season to date in 2019/20, leading a resurgent Marseille to a provisional second place in Ligue 1.
A tricky campaign at Crystal Palace between 2016/17 aside, Mandanda has proven throughout his career and notably his 12 year affiliation with OM that on his day he is undeniably one of the greatest shot-stoppers in 21st century French football, but will likely never be recognised as such by a wider European audience after failing to show consistency on multiple occasions at critical junctures of his professional footballing journey.
Right-Back – Mathieu Debuchy (St Étienne)
Joining Lille at the age of eight, Debuchy spent 20 years with Les Dogues before becoming part of Newcastle United’s failed Frenchie revolution under Alan Pardew. Between 2011 and 2015, the current St Étienne man racked up 27 international appearances, with Laurent Blanc being enamoured with the player’s swashbuckling style, which he continues to showcase with Les Verts for whom he has scored a surprising number of goals from set-pieces and open play (9 goals in 47 matches).
Hampered by injuries at Arsenal, playing for the club just 13 times over the course of four years and being prevented from joining Manchester United under Louis van Gaal by Arsène Wenger, Debuchy’s career never catapulted into a stratosphere that would enable his talent to be discussed in the conversation with the best full-backs in the world.
Centre-Back – Laurent Koscielny (Bordeaux)
France’s most consistent representative in the Premier League in the 2010s, Koscielny’s brilliant athleticism and considerable passing poise has been perennially overshadowed in pub conversations by his clumsiness in the penalty area and a clunky leadership style. Heartbroken after missing the 2018 World Cup through injury and losing the EURO 2016, the now Bordeaux central defender will be looked back on as the symbol of the “just before great” phase of Didier Deschamps’ tenure with Les Bleus.
Centre-Back – Loïc Perrin (St Étienne)
The longest-serving 1-club careerist in Europe’s top 5 leagues since the playing retirement of Steven Gerrard, Perrin was never given a shot at senior national team level. Appreciated for his poise and leadership, his speed has deserted him in recent months, leading him to endure a sad ending to an otherwise wonderfully dignified career. as St Étienne languish in a relegation battle. Certainly the best French central defender in the 21st century never to get a call-up.
Centre-Back – Adil Rami (FC Sochi)
Coming up with Rudi Garcia at Lille, the Franco-Moroccan has enjoyed a richly diverse career, playing for AC Milan, Valencia, Sevilla and Marseille. However, his wider European reputation has become varnished by his recently very public relationship with Pamela Anderson and his utilisation of a fire extinguisher in the middle of the night at France’s World Cup base camp at Istra. A “wearing his heart on his sleeve”, swashbuckling central defender, Rami’s peak came under Unai Emery at Sevilla as the duo racked up a Europa League title together.
Left-Back – Gaël Clichy (İstanbul Başakşehir)
Brought up through the AS Cannes youth academy in its early 2000s golden age for producing talent, one of the more bashful characters of this generation but arguably the most consistently successful, with three Premier League titles to his name. Clichy currently continues to persevere with his career in the Turkish capital. As a toddler he was right-footed, but under the stewardship of his father, became left-footed, in a move that undoubtedly massively impacted the career he would have later on.
Central Midfielder – Lassana Diarra (retired)
The only player to, to date, have retired from professional football on this list, Diarra preferred to focus on his entrepreneurial ventures in the sports drink industry after 12 months at PSG, ending in early 2019. A pure and genius ball-winner, Diarra boasts Chelsea, Arsenal and Real Madrid as clubs he can call former homes to his talent. Convinced under ultimately false pretences that Anzhi Makhatchkala were going to take Europe by storm, he moved there in 2012 and faded from European view. Following a contract dispute at his next club, Lokomotiv Moscow, Diarra was banned from playing professional football for a year by FIFA, coinciding with the time when he should have been in his physical prime, at the age of 29. A swansong in the French national team shirt followed after some inspirational form at Marseille in what was the last real demonstration of his talents and immense capacity to control matches.
Left Winger – Jimmy Briand (Bordeaux)
Currently the highest French goal-scorer in Ligue 1 historically of players still currently active in the division and a Clairefontaine academy graduate, Briand turned the perception of him as one of a promising talent into a consistent danger whilst wearing the white of Lyon as a winger between 2010 and 2014. A failed singular campaign at Hannover aside, Briand has spent his entire career in Ligue 1, his longevity down to a crucial positional switch that he made in his game upon arriving at Guingamp in 2015. Moving into the centre-forward role and developing his finishing, Briand became a dangerous fox-in-the-box talent, with a ratio of a goal roughly every three appearances with EAG as he consistently kept them in the top flight. Now at Bordeaux, Briand’s conscientiousness and composure is serving as world-class tutelage opportunities for the likes of Josh Maja and others.
Right Winger – David Gigliotti (FC Istres)
Undoubtedly a class below the career achievements of the rest of this XI, Gigliotti was actually thought of as one of the most promising talents of his generation at the inception of his time as a professional footballer. Scoring six in 12 appearances for the France U21s, he also netted an incredible 33 goals in the 2003/04 campaign for AS Monaco’s U18s. Blessed with effortless flair and spectacular technical qualities, his first Ligue 1 goal, an acrobatic effort against bitter rivals OGC Nice after a cross from Javier Saviola, served as a microcosm for this, but Gigliotti never pushed on. After a largely promising loan spell with ESTAC Troyes in 2006/7, his slight frame led Monaco to sell him to St Étienne, sparking a journeyman career that has seen him spend time at nine different clubs. He currently plies his trade in the French 4th division, probably wondering what might have been.
Centre-Forward – Bafetimbi Gomis (Al-Hilal)
Consistently controversial in the clubs he chose to join, despite being an otherwise generally very affable personality, Gomis has an extraordinary on-pitch perseverance quality that has made him one of the most nightmarish attackers to defend against in the French top flight. A St Étienne mainstay for half a decade after coming up through Les Verts’ youth ranks, his unusually simultaneously nibble and stocky build despite only being 1.84m attracted the attention of arch-rivals Lyon, who made him only the sixth player in history to join OL from ASSE. With the quality of his aerial ability matching his dexterity with the ball at this feet, Gomis attracted glances from the Premier League and after very public and protracted negotiations with Newcastle United, the Frenchman joined Welsh side Swansea. Since his loan spell at Marseille in 2016, Gomis has one of the best goals to games ratios in world football, scoring 85 times in 113 games, at OM, Galatasaray and Al-Hilal combined.
Centre-Forward – André-Pierre Gignac (Tigres)
APG’s effort coming off the post in what would have been the goal to clinch EURO 2016 in the dying embers of normal time in France’s clash with Portugal might be what most football fans will remember him for, but it will certainly not define him personally. A serial goal-scorer who was never far away from media controversy for one reason or another, be it due to his supposed weight problems or his fiery personality leading to some hot-mic moments, Gignac’s brilliance is defined by his immense ability to carve out that extra metre or so’s worth of space to unleash a lethal strike from anywhere. The relationship he developed with Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille was truly special for any football fan to watch. In 2015, he made the surprise decision to move to Tigres in Mexico, which did not prevent Deschamps from selecting him for the following summer’s premier competition. Still with the side, Gignac has become their all-time record goalscorer, producing an insane scorpion kick just last month in a critical game as the team’s season reached its climax.