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Was French football’s generation of 1987 sacrificed?

Speaking to Get French Football News, Maxime Masson, editor-in-chief of the excellent website Ultimo Diez, discussed his recent book “1987 – a generation sacrificed?” We talk football media’s obsession with creating narratives of rivalry, the often farcical last two decades of French football and much more.

Hi Maxime and thanks for having a chat with us on your book “1987, generation sacrifiée?” My first question is quite simple: how did you come to write a book on this particular subject?

Well, first of all, I’m about to turn 30, and the players of the “1987 generation” are the ones I grew up with. When they became champions of Europe (in the 2004 U-17 European championships), I can still remember my starry-eyed face in front of the TV… and how amazed I was. But also, after kind of analysing the media treatment that they have faced throughout their careers, I realised that something was wrong. The pejorative terms like “little morons”, “rascals” or “waste” seemed to stick to some of the members of this generation. Therefore, I wanted to see if another angle was possible… I wanted to tell another story. Because this generation is not just about Hatem (Ben Arfa), Karim (Benzema), Jérémy (Menez) or Samir (Nasri)… it is also about Benoît (Costil), (Loic) Rémy, Steven (Thicot), Kevin (Gameiro)…

There are so many things to say about this group of guys. And the thing is: whether you like it or not, they went down in history. In spite of themselves, or not, I don’t really know. But what I know is that they broke out in a very specific moment, in a context of big changes in the football world. In the mid-2000s, we were slowly shifting from what I call “old fashioned football” to a new phase. A phase we’re pretty much in right now to be fair: the world of “football business”. That’s what led me to write something on this generation. I didn’t want to focus just on their mischiefs and failures.

In your book (and in the media), there’s a sentence that comes up again and again: “he didn’t have the career he deserved”. In my opinion, this sentence means nothing… and everything at the same time. What do you think of it? Isn’t it like a sort of “catch-all” phrase?

I totally agree with you. I think we have to go back to the basics. When you play in the youth teams of your local club, or even as an amateur, there is a meritocracy system. The best players play, the others don’t. At every level, a young player can only climb the ladder thanks to his talent. It is only based on that. And this system is no longer relevant when you enter an academy, when you enter the world of professional football. Talent is no longer enough.

So, the real translation of “he didn’t have the career he deserved” would be: “he didn’t have the career that his talent should have entailed.” I think that’s how you have to interpret it. Indeed, when you look at the inherent qualities of these players at the age of 17, 18, 19 or even at their intrinsic technical abilities all along their footballing careers, some didn’t have the careers they should have had.

For some, like Karim Benzema, the planets almost all aligned (at least at club-level). That allowed him to have the career we know he’s had. For Benoît Costil and (Thomas) Mangani the stars did align as well, but at Ligue 1 level. They’ve had great careers in our league. For some others, nothing happened as planned. Look at Steven Thicot: everyone predicted he would have a great career and he was described as a very promising centre-back. Well, he has played hundreds of games as well, but all over the world. He never found stability. It is just a question of perspective.

Speaking of stars aligning, in your book you draw an interesting parallel between the 1987 generation and the 2018 World Cup, saying that some “should have lifted it” (the cup). What names are you thinking of?

Well, I think we should make a demarcation between the ones, in an alternate reality of course, who could have played an important part in this success, and the ones who could have actually deserved to make the final 23.

The two players that could have played a huge part in this win are, in my opinion: Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri. But for example, Benoît Costil could have made it as well as a perfect third choice goalkeeper. Then there are players like Ben Arfa, whom I’m not sure would have necessarily made the 23 man squad a 100/100 times. I mean, if you rewind Hatem’s career a hundred times, how many times does he make it in 2018? His talent was amazing that is for sure, but the national team is something very political. The criteria to be selected are numerous and you know just as well as me that, to win a World Cup, you don’t need the 23 best players of your country. You the best group of 23 players.

Coming back to your book, we find out how a career is about little details. To illustrate it, let’s talk about Steven Thicot. He was a huge prospect in this teens but never really took off. For multiple reasons: crooked agents, changing of managers, injuries… It is a sad story.   

Yes, it is. And believe me, he was saddened by it as well. Not really anymore because he’s become a man with a stable situation, a family and all that that entails… But of course, he suffered a lot. Mostly because, like many young prospects that are destined to do great things, he sacrificed a big part of his life chasing his dream. He spent many years being told that he was going to take the world by storm. And in the end, he felt that this golden future had just slipped from his grasp because of things he couldn’t control. You know, as men, it is something natural to suffer a setback but it is never easy to deal with it.

So, imagine at their level, when you sacrificed your teenage years for no end product… Not to mention that these kids – because they were kids – they were not ready to deal with the ruthlessness of this “industry”. So, you have to praise their strength of character and, in Steven Thicot’s case, their ability to bounce back quickly. Those are real life stories, far from the clichés of rich golden boys with fancy cars spread by the media and deeply rooted in a lot of peoples’ mind.

(Editor’s note: Steven Thicot now plays for FK Kauno Zalgiris, in the Lithuanian first division).

Thicot’s story echoes another one: Jean-Christophe Cesto’s. Could we say this generation is, in some ways, cursed? Or is it just the perfect synthesis of what happens in every generation: some make it, others don’t…

Well, in every generation, you have different stereotypical paths: brilliant careers, average careers, failures, disappointments… that’s what you generally get. The difference with the 1987 generation is that they’ve been in the spotlight very early. The difference with other generations is that they proved themselves, on the pitch (during the 2004 U17 European Championships victory for example), that they were the best, that they stood out from the crowd. Some were recognised as the “best in their positions” by many observers.

But a curse? I don’t know. Maybe the fact they were brought into focus at a very young age emphasised the expectations and people automatically focused more on their failures as well.

You know, out of the 18 European champions (at U17s level), 9 ended up as internationals. 5 for France: Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Benoît Costil, Samir Nasri and Jérémy Ménez and 4 for other nations: Kévin Constant (Guinea), Franck Songo’o (Cameroon), Karim El Mourabet (Morocco), Serge Akakpo (Togo). In the end, that makes a good total and I seriously doubt that we’ve ever seen a generation with as many international players as this one. But yes, the examples of Jean-Christophe Cesto – who was diagnosed with heart condition that turned out to be a false diagnosis – or Serge Akakpo – who was severely injured in a terrorist attack while on international duty with Togo in 2010 – show that every generation brings its share of ups and downs. Sometimes, in dramatic fashion, I’ll give you that.

There is another interesting quote in your book, courtesy of former PSG bad boy Jérémy Ménez : “Benzema was one of the hardest workers of us all.” Is work ethic something that some of the members of the 87 generation, especially the “four horsemen as you call them, Ménez, Ben Arfa, Benzema, Nasri – lacked?

This quote is from Onze Mondial if I remember correctly. And indeed, among the “four horsemen”, Karim Benzema is the one who has always worked the hardest. From Lyon to Madrid, he’s always put an incredible amount of work to reach his goals. And look where he is now, he is the one who has best managed his career. At 33, he is the only one still playing top level football amongst the four. It is a shame because his image, throughout his career, has been damaged by several controversies (some were justified, some weren’t) that guided the public opinion in France – because his image in Spain is drastically different – to forget the real athlete and great professional he is.

In my book, I really tried, with my modest means, to exit this debate I find kind of pointless, consisting of being “pro or anti Benzema,” so that I could focus more on his story on the pitch.

I believe there’s been some kind of misunderstanding between these ambitious youngsters and the older generations. Sometimes, we (or the media in general) probably mix up “self-confidence” with “arrogance” when it came to the class of 87. I’m thinking of the “bus incident” you’re talking about in your book, in which Samir Nasri sat int Thierry Henry’s spot during EURO 2008. What do you think about it?

You’re right, I think there’s been a general incomprehension regarding this generation. Or a will not to understand them. In the meantime, I think that they as kids also sometimes lacked tactfulness or diplomacy. With the media, the coaches, the older players…

That’s because their self-confidence was clear. And, you know, it is hard to keep your feet on the ground when you’ve been outclassing everyone in every youth category at club level and for the national team since you were so young. And, as you say, the difference between self-confidence and arrogance is a very fine line.

In France, we may have failed to understand that. You know, in this country there is something that is deeply rooted, something that is in our DNA: we’ve always had a soft spot for the runners-up, the losers. You know, this “beautiful losers” thing. Like Raymond Poulidor  (Tour de France legend, who never won it, finishing several times in the second place) …

In a nutshell, this means: the values of hard-work and dedication will always be more recognised than raw talent. So yes, when a 17-year-old Benzema arrived in the Lyon dressing room and declared quite clumsily that he was going to “take (the old ones’) place”, the big shots didn’t really appreciate that, nor understand it.

Maybe this self-confidence was for them a sort of motivation?

Yes, definitely. On one hand, I can understand their high degree of confidence, it is fair. But on the other hand, I can also understand that, when you’re Cris, Alou Diarra or Florent Malouda, you want the youngsters to show you some little respect.

So, when Hatem Ben Arfa, on his first day of training with the first team, started dribbling past the entire team, nutmegging them all and finishing with a chip over the keeper… it annoyed everybody. And I can understand that!

But these kids’ intentions were not bad. That was their way of saying: “this is how I can help the team; this is what I’m going to bring you.” So, there was definitely a general misunderstanding between everybody on what to do to really figure them out. The only one who ever managed to do it was Philippe Bergeroo, the U-17 coach who made them won the Euros in 2004.

To a certain extent, can we compare this behaviour to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s extreme self-confidence?

Yes, I think it is all about context. When Ibra said “this country doesn’t deserve PSG.” Obviously, it created a conflict between, on one side: the PSG supporters who delighted in this statement thinking “he is totally right, we’re Ligue 1’s driving force, this league doesn’t deserve us”, etc… And on the other side: the rest of the country who felt outraged by his words… It is all about winning unanimous support, or not. And spoiler alert: nobody ever wins that completely. Even Thierry Henry, one of the greatest, wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

Coming back to this “generational gap,” I feel that the pattern has, in a way, changed. When Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé arrived in the national team, or when Paul Pogba or others did 4 or 5 years ago, I feel this gap didn’t really exist anymore… 

I think football has changed. And “old school” players like Cris, Grégory Coupet, or Claudio Caçapa no longer really exist. Those guys didn’t share the same “code of conduct” as Ben Arfa or Benzema. And that’s the big difference with today. Now, we’re in a world where football is even more global than it was fifteen years ago. The mentalities have evolved and the policies as well. Speaking of codes, when Mbappé entered Monaco’s dressing room, PSG’s or France’s, he met players that shared the same “codes”. It’s a bit cliché but he met players who came overwhelmingly from the “Banlieues” like him and enjoying the same music, etc… not to mention that in today’s football, “veterans” are an endangered species because clubs rely more on younger and younger players. So Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé or Paul Pogba a few years before, didn’t struggle to fit in.

In your book, the 2010 World Cup is mentioned. A funny thing is that we tend to correlate the infamous Knysna episode – the players refusing to get off of the bus to train after Anelka’s dismissal from the national teamand the players of the 1987 generation. It is something that is in the collective subconscious. Yet not a single player of this generation was involved. Why so?

Well, I’d say that, between 2006 and 2014, French football went completely out of control. It was tarnished by many controversies: the quotas case, the Zahia case, the Knysna incident, Raymond Domenech proposing to his fiancée live on TV after France’s exit in the EURO 2008 group stage… anyways. Many, many incidents that didn’t favour this generation’s interests. And the highlight was probably this sentence pronounced by the Minister of Sports at the time, Roselyne Bachelot.

In a speech at the French Parliament, in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup fiasco, she said that the French national team was full of “immature bullies commanding frightened kids”. This sentence was the coup de grace and really hurt them all. That was it. They were definitely going to be stigmatised for the rest of their careers.

Nevertheless, they had their share of responsibility, no doubt about it. But, some allegations were definitely made about them against a backdrop of… racism and the rise of extremes in politics. We shouldn’t be afraid to say it. I think that side supplanted the sporting aspect and there is definitely a correlation with the absence of Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri in Raymond Domenech’s squad for the 2010 World Cup.

Speaking of Samir Nasri, whom you dedicate an entire chapter to, let’s talk a little more about him. He seems to be the perfect example of a player who had everything to become a regular starter for France but failed to do so because of these tiny glitches that always got in the way. In other words, even when everything was fine, he always found a way to mess things up. I’m thinking of the 2014 World Cup in particular…

I think the years that he spent in England were really quality, when he was not on the sidelines due to injuries. People tend to forget that he was an injury prone player and it interfered with his progression.

Indeed, he missed two huge turning points. The first was EURO 2012, a competition in which he was not considered as a starter by Laurent Blanc. This was confirmed for the game against Spain, which he didn’t start. The second one was the 2013 play-offs against Ukraine, where France lost 2-0. People expected a lot from him, and he failed to impress, but just like the other ten men on the pitch. For the second leg, Deschamps made some changes and history was written without him as France won 3-0.

A shame, because when you see how exemplary Nasri’s behaviour was during the 2004 U17 Euros, how the coaches he has worked with praise him, how eloquent he was in front of the cameras and how intelligent he is… He had everything, in my opinion, to become France’s leader on and off the pitch. What he lacked, I think, was this ability to back down sometimes.

He’s always been a very stubborn person, stubborn with himself in the first place, but also with others. And when he couldn’t get along with some people, he couldn’t put a little water in his wine. He is a kid from Marseille’s northern neighbourhoods after all… But that’s all. Apart from that, I don’t really know what could have prevented him from being France’s #10 for at least fifteen years, from 2007 to… let’s say even play a role in the 2018 World Cup as a 33-year-old experienced midfielder.

Let’s widen our scope for a moment. Recently, we’ve been witnessing the rise of a new “rivalry” between Erling Braut Haaland and Kylian Mbappé. Isn’t this the sign that the media hasn’t changed in 15 years? In terms of creating a hype around young players? A hype that can turn out to be prejudicial?  

You know, mainstream media is in a perpetual search of sensationalism. A process that is motivated by the current state of affairs – media crisis, new economic models based on instantaneity… I think the idea of always trying to create new rivalries isn’t good for the sport. As is this tendency to glorify a player one day and shoot him down the next. To correlate it to the 1987 generation, I think they – the players – suffered from it, and so did their families. They are the ones who were indirectly thrown to the wolves.

Did the generation 1987 set a sort a precedent? Mostly in the way Didier Deschamps deals with his squad selections and is pain-staking to avoid players that could be troublesome.

I don’t really think it set a precedent. I mean, I don’t think all the troubles that French football has suffered in the last 20 years were directly caused by the players of this generation. I mean, French football didn’t need them to generate its own controversies.

Look at the quotas case in 2011 involving Laurent Blanc, it was scandalous but, in the meantime, it was snuffed out by the media…Anyway, what’s for sure is that this generation emerged in a moment of deep changes in the football world – the takeover of business, the advent of social networks… Those were things they had to deal with, and it was difficult. So, I’d say that the only precedent they might have set is the way young players nowadays deal with the press and the media.

And what about making the squads?

You know, it is all very political. As I said previously, it’s about finding the best group of 23 players, not the 23 best players… In truth, Deschamps’ method, whether you like or not, has proven to be effective. Since his takeover, France qualified for the 2014 WC, almost won EURO 2016 and became world champions for the second time in 2018. Those are facts. He did it without some and… that’s how he works. I think the previous events that punctuated French football history may have influenced him with his choices, and added to his diehard pragmatism.

Maxime Masson’s book “1987, génération sacrifiée?” is available on Amazon.

A.D.

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