x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Euro 2012: France coach pins hopes on 'Class of 1987'

The French team which takes on England will feature several graduates from the Under 17 side which won the European Championship, writes Ian Hawkey

Karim Benzema, right, and Jeremy Menez, left, were both part of France's Under 17 European Championship victory in 2004, along with Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa.
Karim Benzema, right, and Jeremy Menez, left, were both part of France's Under 17 European Championship victory in 2004, along with Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa.

Laurent Blanc seemed perplexed. The current head coach of France and I were sitting in the grounds of the handsome chateau that is home to Bordeaux's practice headquarters one spring lunchtime discussing the distinctions between French and English football.

Blanc played in both countries and won a World Cup and a European championship with Les Bleus. Bordeaux, at the time, was his first job as a senior coach and he would soon be leading them to a league title.

"In France, what we don't have is that very deep culture of football that England has," Blanc explained. "A good club in the Premier League can build a 60,000-seater stadium and know it will be full all the time. Then you look at the crowds in the second and third tiers of English football. We don't have that sort of interest.

"Paradoxically, what we do have in France is some of the best young players coming through. That is good for the national team, who should get much stronger in the years ahead."

Blanc was saying all this just over three years ago, when he knew he had become the popular choice to take over as national coach - he did so in the summer of 2010 - and had begun to realise that was the job he wanted.

His hope over the next three weeks, starting with Monday's fixture against England, is that those young French players he spoke of then will flower together in the national jersey. They ought to be in their peak years physically, at the age of 24 or 25 and, logically, should have matured emotionally to rise to such a big occasions.

France has a strong reputation in the development and identification of young talent which goes back over 20 years, its symbol the Clairefontaine academy site, outside Paris, opened in 1988. Thierry Henry, among others, passed through there on the way to celebrating the greatest triumphs, alongside Blanc, of the French national team's history, a World Cup in 1998, followed by victory at Euro 2000.

Blanc had retired as a player by the time France then lost their grip on No 1 status as a national team. But as he began to qualify as a coach, he quickly got the idea a special generation might take up the baton, a clutch of players known as Generation 87, men born the year before the Clairefontaine academy was officially opened and with a long, shared history of success in their teens.

On these players, Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez, Blanc is pinning faith.

Euro 2012 has a special status for all four of them. Eight years ago, they were together when, at the European Under 17 championship staged in France, they triumphed as junior Bleus.

Ben Arfa, now of Newcastle United, dazzled on the flanks; Nasri, now of Manchester City, displayed leadership from his advanced position in midfield and the striker Menez, now at Paris Saint Germain and formerly of Roma, performed impressively enough that invitations to negotiate with Manchester United were being put to him, at aged 16.

Benzema, now at Real Madrid, though he had flaws in his game to iron out, also suggested potential.

France beat Spain in the final of that championship and the curious aspect of that tournament is how many of the top teens from both countries have graduated successfully into the top-tier of professional football.

The bridge between being a good 16 or 17 year-old sportsman and pushing on beyond is famously rickety. The body, still developing at 16, can turn from something supple and lithe to a tool with unalterable flaws. The mind can get distracted by fame and fortune, too.

France had Nasri, Ben Arfa and Menez in their XI for that U17 final and Benzema on the bench. Spain had Cesc Fabregas, now of Barcelona, previously of Arsenal, in their line-up alongside his friend Gerard Pique, who scored in the 2-1 loss.

Compare, say, the England group whom Spain had beaten in the semi-final: It included not a single footballer called up to the senior squad for the current Euros in Poland and Ukraine.

But France had Clairefontaine and Spain had by then established a consistent record of success at international age-group championships, a strong academy system, at least at club level.

Just as the French talk of their class of 87, so do Barcelona of theirs: Pique and Fabregas grew up together in the Barcelona youth ranks. There, they would later encounter Pedro Rodriguez - year of birth: 1987 - who joined Barcelona's apprentices from his native Canary Islands. Pedro, Pique and Fabregas are all at the Euros.

That trio all won the last World Cup with Spain. France's Generation 87 have been unfulfilled as international footballers by comparison. Legend has it that, after their U17 win, the French wannabes made a collective vow. "We said we would do everything to make sure, one day, we get the same experience with the main France team," Nasri has recalled.

At times in the last eight years, it would be unclear that they were doing everything to achieve that ambition. Ben Arfa and Benzema, both attached to Lyon, abandoned the musketeer spirit at some stage and ceased to be on talking terms while they were club colleagues.

Ben Arfa has had his problems with authority; Benzema seemed to cow under pressure when he first joined Real Madrid, though he has had a fine 2011/12 campaign.

Nasri's precociousness would, both at Marseille, where he made his professional club debut, and with France, be mistaken for insubordinate arrogance by some senior players. Menez, the youngest Frenchman to sign a professional contract, at 16, would be the last of the quartet to win a senior cap.

Certainly, by the time Generation 87, or the quartet of them who had made France's attacking future look such a bright shade of Bleu in the early summer of 2004, had reached what should have been sporting maturity, all of them had raised sufficient doubt about their readiness to be senior internationals.

Though Nasri and Benzema went to Euro 2008 - Ben Arfa missed the cut from shortlist to 23-man squad - they had bit-parts there, and France had a wretched time. None of the foursome were selected to go to the last World Cup.

They were valued more highly as club players than as Bleus. By 2010, Nasri was in London, at Arsenal in the Premier League, Benzema at Madrid as part of the blockbuster summer spend that had brought Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka to the Spanish capital.

Menez was in the capital of Italy, at Roma. Ben Arfa, meanwhile, had won the French league title with Marseille. Between them, this quartet have in their young careers fetched combined transfer fees of over £100m (Dh458m).

Blanc would like the French public to hold his special generation in similarly elevated terms, to be admired like Spain's class of 87, who have helped gain unprecedented glory for their national team.

Twenty-five is certainly not too old to aspire to many more successes but if you don't seize your chances swiftly, others will. Spain's class of 1988 - Juan Mata, Sergio Busquets and Javi Martinez - are already shining. Germany have great belief in a strong group of 24 and younger.

Golden generations can tarnish fast.

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