This is the third piece in a 21-part series detailing the best that French football has had to offer from each and every generation between 1985 and 2005.
Goalkeeper – Benoît Costil (Bordeaux)
A late bloomer, Costil experienced Ligue 1 football properly for the first time at Rennes in 2011. Making the grade for Didier Deschamps as his third choice goalkeeper at EURO 2016, Costil ultimately felt restrained by Rennes mid-table mediocrity, unwittingly leaving the club in 2017 just before it began to experience notable success in Europe. One of the few experienced heads left at cash-strapped Bordeaux, the Brittany-born shot-stopper was quick to remind Get French Football News in an interview earlier this season that he has not given up on future action with the French national team. Both simultaneously blessed and constrained by his under-the-radar consistency and well-rounded nature without any characteristics that exceptionally standout, time will tell whether Costil will get the opportunity to truly shine at a club capable of winning things.
Right-Back – Julien Faussurier (Brest)
A generation not blessed with a gluttony of full-backs, Faussurier played for Lyon’s reserves until the age of 20, before making his name at ESTAC Troyes with whom he experienced everything, including a relegation to the 3rd division and a promotion to Ligue 1 in 2011/12.
The Frenchman continues to grace the French 1st division, having made 22 appearances for Brest this season. Relatively short and with a low centre of gravity, he began his career as a right-winger but slowly regressed positionally as he became less offensively potent.
Centre-Back – François Bellugou (Auxerre)
In a career that boasts over 380 professional matches that has seen Bellugou play as both a central defender and defensive midfielder, the Montpellier native has enjoyed a fantastically full career, the peak of which was the Coupe de France victory and subsequent Europa League run that he enjoyed with EA Guingamp. In a generation not known for its defensive rocks, Bellugou is a modern Libero in style, vacuuming up loose balls at will. In truth, Bellugou deserved a career as a Ligue 1 stalwart, but a number of transfer decisions from 2013 onwards, notably to make moves to Nancy, Lorient and then ESTAC Troyes, saw him constantly oscillate between the top two tiers and fell slowly from the view of French football’s important recruiters.
Centre-Back – Nicolas Pallois (Nantes)
After the most impressive year of his career, exuding fierce leadership, defensive intelligence and unerring consistency, it is difficult to understand how the centre back struggled to break out of the amateur ranks of France’s sprawling lower leagues before touring three second tier clubs in a bid to establish himself. A former carpenter, lacking the polish of a modern day academy grad, Pallois has been painted as a brutish workhorse; an uncomplicated blunt instrument.
Physical strength has often been deemed Pallois only quality, but the mental strength he has shown to handle the passing of his late friend Emiliano Sala, having helped carry the coffin at his funeral and been the man to drive his friend to the airport before the tragic flight to Cardiff has been superhuman. It is obvious from his displays that Pallois now plays for his friend. The last 18 months has forced many to reassess their misconceptions of Pallois’ style and persona.
Left-Back – Blaise Matuidi (Juventus)
Put in this unorthodox full-back position where he has featured at times for Juventus to accommodate the golden nature of this 1987 generation, Matuidi is the embodiment of all the qualities that today’s younger players struggle with. An iron-clad mentality, the ability to be utterly undistracted to chase down every ball, execute every tackle and make every attacking run possible over the course of a 90 minute period.
Unanimously respected for his professionalism and adored for his positivity, Matuidi played an essential role in France’s 2018 World Cup victory, on the left-hand side of Didier Deschamps’ asymmetric 4-2-3-1. Criticised for a supposedly inadequate final pass or ball, Matuidi executed the box-to-box role at PSG perfectly and would have remained an essential cog in Les Bleus’ machine had EURO 2020 taken place this summer.
Right-Winger – Loïc Rémy (Lille)
Loïc Rémy’s career has been rich in experiences, marked out by individuals like Didier Deschamps at an early age for being in the unusual position of being as powerful as he was rapid in the early-going. A Lyon youth product, Rémy’s first real opportunity came at OGC Nice, where his scoring ratio of just under a goal every two games led to interest from Marseille.
Not enough to keep QPR out of trouble and electric at Newcastle United, his margin from growth was slowed after accepting to be a utility player at Chelsea FC. A move to Lille in 2018 allowed him to play an important role at a team again for the first time since 2014. Now flourishing in the older brother role at Les Dogues, the Frenchman has turned into somewhat of a Rolls Royce, with a canny knack to score from all areas of the pitch with all parts of his feet.
Attacking Midfielder – Hatem Ben Arfa (Real Valladolid)
Arguably the most naturally gifted French dribbler since Thierry Henry, Ben Arfa’s lack of professionalism, or more pertinently the actions of his wider entourage, have consistently lowered his ceiling of success. In an environment where he feels loved under a coach who comes across as “tough, but fair,” Ben Arfa can be devastating: his 2015/16 campaign with OGC Nice under Claude Puel is case in point, in a season where HBA dazzled daily and came away with a goal every two games ratio.
Attacking Midfielder – Samir Nasri (Anderlecht)
One of French football’s biggest bad-boys, Nasri has seen it all from Twitter hackings, lewd allegations to being banned for 18 months in January 2019 for a subsequent drugs violation. Picked up by Arsenal in 2008 for his incredibly astute creativity and ball-playing brilliance, it was under Arsène Wenger where he first transitioned into the left-wing position, building chemistry with Gaël Clichy. In 2011 and becoming the highest paid Frenchman in footballing history with a move to Manchester City, Nasri earned double Premier League glory, but wouldn’t go on to achieve the legendary status that David Silva achieved, despite arguably being as talented – a mixture of attitude problems and fitness issues making him an early casualty of the Pep Guardiola reign.
His time with the national team, emblematic of his career, was fiery and unstable, with the man of Algerian origin retiring from French action at 27 after Didier Deschamps elected to favour Mathieu Valbuena over the ex-Marseille man for the 2014 World Cup. Questioned in 2017 whether he regretted not opting to play for his parents’ African nation of their birth, he responded that back in the day the Algerian national team was “a Gobi desert.”
Currently contracted to Belgian side Anderlecht, this spell, just like his time at Sevilla, West Ham & Antalyaspor, has been an unmitigated disaster.
Left-Winger – Dimitri Payet (Marseille)
Derided on both sides of the Channel for a self-serving outlook on life, Payet has never been ashamed to say that he puts his and his family’s needs over that of the club that he is representing. This did not stop him from becoming French football’s darling at EURO 2016 for his consistent moments of curling shot magic and his celebrated, deft change of acceleration. A joy to watch on the ball, although Payet’s powers are waning, he still has the raw ability to turn matches on an instance at Marseille in Ligue 1. The big question that many will have when his career to comes to an end will be whether his attitude prevented him from going to the very top, as he certainly had the ability to go there – it is a French football inside joke that Payet only turns the style on when we are 12 months out from a major international tournament…
Striker – Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
Quite simply the most accomplished French striker with a currently active playing career, Benzema’s sparkling successes unfortunately only marginally outpace his high-profile controversies: from the Mathieu Valbuena sextape scandal and his subsequent banishment from the French national team set-up, to Zahia Dehar underage prostitution affair and comparing Olivier Giroud to a go-kart – the Lyon youth prospect is utterly unapologetic.
In a professional football world where personality off the field is strong discouraged, there is something oddly admirable in the obstinacy that Benzema has shown to the notion of evolving to play the PR game. From the Champions’ League triple, Ligue 1 triple and double La Liga title successes, Benzema is as close as most in the last decade of modern footballers to have come to deserving the serial winner tag. After years of making the hard yards despite remaining in Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow, both in terms of the minimal service received in comparison and also in terms of the general limelight, the Portuguese’s departure to Juventus has given KB9 the main man status under a manager he adores in Zinedine Zidane. His deceiving movement is outshone only by his exceptional striking technique.
Striker – Kévin Gameiro (Valencia)
If Benzema is Cinderella in this XI, then Gameiro is generally treated by media as one of the ugly step-sisters. The 4-time Europa League winner, a record number of titles in this competition for a Frenchman in footballing history, who performs best alongside another centre-forward with a more physical frame, flourished under the orders of Unai Emery at Sevilla.
With a youth career that culminated in Strasbourg taking a chance on him, it was at FC Lorient where he demonstrated his fox-in-the-box talents to their fullest extent, coming close to achieving a goal every two games during his 3-year spell with Les Merlus. Loïc Féry’s club took him on despite him suffering an ACL injury in 2006 at the tender age of 19, which would have plummeted weaker-minded players into a negative spiral that would have ended their careers upon launch. Gameiro’s plucky perseverance and knack of ghosting past opposition defenders have ensured that he has enjoyed a full career and sits on 13 national team caps to boot.
Check out the existing pieces in this series: