x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ribery comes of age

Franck Ribery, at 23, was the youngest player in France's World Cup finals squad in 2006. With his first cap gained just a month earlier against Mexico, few expected much of the Marseille winger.

Franck Ribery, at 23, was the youngest player in France's World Cup finals squad in 2006. With his first cap gained just a month earlier against Mexico, few expected much of the Marseille winger. Blessed with pace and quick feet his talent was obvious, but he was to be a mere supporting act to the main attraction that was Zinedine Zidane. The talk was of the end of an era with the final farewell to heroes such as Zidane, the midfielder Claude Makelele and defensive lynchpin Lilian Thuram.

It also transpired to be the start of a new generation, something Raymond Domenech, the France coach, is eager for supporters to acknowledge. He had to rebuild after that tournament, which saw his side surprise many to reach a final they eventually lost on penalties to Italy. Ribery has become their guiding light, providing moments of the Gallic genius that his nation feared was lost following the retirement of Zidane.

Domenech has attracted plenty of criticism over his side's disappointing displays since 2006, particularly when Les Bleus were knocked out of the 2008 European Championship in the group stage. With Ribery in his ranks, he remains optimistic. "We'll have to find a generation that gives us something. When you have players like Karim [Benzema], Yoann [Gourcuff] and Franck, who will be the engine of the team, we can have hope," he says.

Ribery, now commanding a bigger stage at Bayern Munich, was the joker in the pack three years ago, providing a joie de vivre and learning from playing alongside the midfield master Zidane. That zest for life remains strong. It has carried France in their quest to reach next year's finals in South Africa. It was a Ribery goal in Romania in October that sparked the comeback for a 2-2 draw after they were two goals down.

Winners from Ribery in back-to-back games against Lithuania salvaged their qualification hopes after Serbia had taken control of Group Seven. Ribery has been troubled by injury - and transfer speculation - since the start of this season. But with a likely move to Real Madrid on hold, he wants to focus on helping his country, as he revealed in the build up to two games which could determine France's cup fate.

Les Bleus take on Romania tomorrow in Paris before the tough trip to Belgrade to take on the Serbs, who are five points clear having played a game more. Two wins are needed or France could be scrapping for second spot and the play-offs. "I want to go to South Africa. I don't even want to think about elimination or the play-offs," he said. "It would be a nightmare and I wouldn't dare go out of my house. For me, the France team is above everything this season; this is a priority."

The whole of France will be hoping Ribery is not at home next summer. The showpiece event will be a poorer place without his presence. akhan@thenational.ae