By Robin Bairner
After years of false optimism, there is finally once again promise that France could rediscover their place as one of the world’s foremost international superpowers. Les Bleus might have crashed out of Euro 2012 in a limp manner, but a gaggle of exciting young players are in the midst of making their names at some of the continent’s greatest clubs, providing fresh hope in l’Hexagone ahead of its hosting of Euro 2016.
The national team has spent much of the last decade lurching from disaster to disaster. Aside from reaching the World Cup final of 2006, France have tended to under-perform grossly at major tournaments, with their feeble exit at the hands of Spain during Euro 2012 all too typical of their inability to find cohesion on the greatest stage.
Fast forward eight months, and the future of the game suddenly looks bright for les Bleus. About to break through into the senior national side are some of Europe’s brightest young players, who have been produced by a competitive domestic academy system before being honed by the game’s elite abroad.
There is no more competitive a club to make a name at than Real Madrid, yet young centre-back Raphael Varane appears set to enjoy a long relationship with los Blancos after a storming performance in the Clasico only a week ago. Brought up in the Lens youth system, the 19-year-old produced a man-of-the-match performance in his first appearance in the world’s biggest club fixture, even scoring the levelling goal in a 1-1 draw.
“He’s still only 19-years-old and it is quite something to then play against Barcelona without making any mistakes like he did,” said Madrid legend Emilio Butragueno, who overlooked the fact that Varane did not only enjoy an error-free match, but actually spent much of the game clearing up mistakes made by the vastly more experienced Ricardo Carvalho alongside him.
Quick, strong and a good reader of the game, he would have made his international debut against Germany on Wednesday had he not been forced to pull out of the squad injured. Nevertheless, with Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Mamadou Sakho still at the beginning of their careers, France looked well stocked for centre-backs in the years to come.
In the midfield, there is another 19-year-old catching the eye, this time with Juventus. Paul Pogba came through Le Havre’s impressive youth system before being sold to Manchester United. Unhappy he was not getting first-team football at Old Trafford, the midfielder pushed through a move to Serie A in the summer.
Critics considered him arrogant as he stormed away from the Premier League leaders, yet his decision has been vindicated fully this season as he has been featuring regularly for the Old Lady, albeit as first alternative to the midfield trio of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, and performing to the highest standard.
Over the course of the campaign, he has been described as everything from “the best teenager in the world” to the next Frank Rijkaard, and even to “a Dali painting”. Paris-born Pogba is a player who seems to have the world at his feet with the Turin giants, with whom he has displayed an ability to dictate games that belies his years.
Another French youth making a name for himself in Italy is M’Baye Niang, who became AC Milan’s second youngest goalscorer in history when he struck in a Coppa Italia fixture against Reggina in December.
“Niang is better than Balotelli,” president Silvio Berlusconi boasted only a few days later to Radio Mars, before swooping to sign the Manchester City forward in January.
Even prior to the arrival of ‘Super Mario’ at San Siro, the young forward was being compared in style to the Italian, and his off-field antics did nothing to quell the comparisons. Niang admitted to RMC that he went “a bit mental” when he joined Milan, and he is presently serving a ban from the national team after breaking a curfew while on duty with the Under-21 squad in the autumn.
Still, the 18-year-old has calmed down and is reaping the benefits on the field. At the side of Balotelli last Sunday against Udinese, he contributed immensely to the cause and is now ready to establish himself as one member of Serie A’s best offensive lines.
Additionally, there is a terrific supporting cast of players bubbling away. Moussa Sissoko at 23 is a little older, but with Newcastle he is showing signs of reaching his fearsome potential, while Lille left-back Lucas Digne is another teenager destined for a massive future in the game. Meanwhile, Lyon’s Ligue 1 title push is being led by youths who have shown they have the skill, desire, belief and team work to match Paris Saint-Germain’s dollar, with the likes of Samuel Umtiti (19), Alexandre Lacazette (21) and Clement Grenier (22) amongst their most impressive performers.
PSG, meanwhile, have a band of their own bright prospects coming through, the best of whom is 17-year-old Adrien Rabiot, who has been forced on loan to Toulouse in order to earn first-team football.
So the future certainly does look bright in France, and with Varane, Pogba and Niang, who are arguably the best teenage trio any nation in the world can boast, the long-term future of les Bleus looks to be in safe hands.
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