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Bans, Benches and Burritos: France’s maverick ‘Golden Generation’ that never was

When France won the Under-17 European Championships in 2004 great things were expected. So what went wrong?

On 15 May 2004 a Spain side containing Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique took to the pitch for the Under-17 European Championships final against France.

Much was expected from the Spaniards, who’d already seen off England in the semi-final thanks to a Fabregas penalty.

But within ten seconds of kicking off the ball was in the back of Spain’s net. This French side were special. Anyone you put in their path they blew away.

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Need any more Brylcreem in that hair?

Need any more Brylcreem in that hair?

Pique equalised in the second-half but France hit back to pick up the trophy. There was no more hiding this generation.

First came Michel Platini. Then came Zinedine Zidane. Now it was time for Hatem Ben Arfa, Karim Benzema, Jeremy Menez and Samir Nasri to carry the hopes of a nation.

Reading those names in the same sentence as Platini and Zidane might seem strange in hindsight but at the time it seemed the natural progression.

It’s fair to say France’s Generation 1987 hasn’t quite panned out as expected. This is football, after all.

Recognise the faces?

Recognise the faces?

Fourteen years after being hailed as the future of French football none of the quartet are likely to be heading to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.

In fact not a single member of the 2004 squad will be there, unless France suffer a goalkeeping crisis and Benoit Costil adds to his one and only cap.

So how did the most talented generation of French footballers since France’s Youth World Cup squad of 97, featuring Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet, fall off so hard?

The answer is far from straightforward, depending on which of the four you’re talking about.

Not a Benzema in sight

Getty - Contributor
Not a Benzema in sight

Hatem Ben Arfa (15 caps/2 goals)

The most technically talented member of the quartet has ended up with the least senior caps for France and hasn’t played a first-team game at club level since March 2017.

The very nature of his game- a carefree, ludicrously technical playmaker- means he operates best when given the freedom to do as he pleases.

Ideal when you’re at Newcastle and Nice, not so great when you’re being asked to fit into a system at PSG or with France.

Reported confrontations with Abou Diaby, Sebastian Squillaci, Djibril Cisse, Didier Deschamps and Modest M’bami, plus the fact that Ben Arfa has left every club he’s played for, aside from Nice, under dark clouds, point to troubles fitting into a group.

There won’t be a more talented player available on the cheap this summer but the lack of takers and an inevitable move to MLS or China tells you all you need to know about Ben Arfa’s current standing in the game.

Practising his handshakes with the invisible man

AFP or licensors
Practising his handshakes with the invisible man

Jeremy Menez (24 caps/2 goals)

France, Italy, France, Turkey, Mexico. Menez’s career path to date has been nothing if not maverick.

Upon signing his first contract with Sochaux Menez was the youngest professional in Ligue 1, with Sir Alex Ferguson even accused of meeting his parents in an illegal attempt to bring him to Manchester.

His career progressed naturally from Sochaux to Monaco to Roma to PSG, who were beginning their dominant peroid, and then to Milan, where he scored sixteen league goals in his first season.

From there he went back to France to sign with Bordeaux before moves to Antalyaspor in Turkey and Club America in Mexico, where he now plays.

Menez’s problem has always been that coaches don’t know whether he’s a forward, winger or attacking midfielder.

A career in which he’s won two Ligue 1 titles, playing a vital role in one of the campaigns, is by no means a failure, and the 24 caps he’s picked up is a fair return when you consider he’s been competing with the likes of Franck Ribery and, more recently, Antoine Griezmann for a place in France’s squad.

We’d leave any side for America with that kit

Getty Images - Getty
We’d leave any side for America with that kit

Samir Nasri (41 caps/5 goals)

Nasri’s career has lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The high points include winning Ligue 1’s Young Player of the Year at Marseille, picking up two Premier League titles with Man City and making the PFA Team of the Year in 2011.

As for low points, he’s currently banned from football for using an intravenous drip treatment out in Los Angeles.

The bizarre incident included a Twitter hack in which he was accused of cheating with the doctor administering the drip.

A failure to make France’s 2010 World Cup or 2014 World Cup squads led to a decision to retire from international duty aged 27.

Why always Samir?

Getty - Contributor
Why always Samir?

Karim Benzema (81 caps, 27 goals)

Four French titles, two Spanish titles, three Champions League trophies, seven domestic trophies, three FIFA Club World Cups and three UEFA Super Cups.

Yet Benzema is still not widely loved in France. He got off on the wrong foot when comments that he chose France over Alegria as an ‘athlete’ were misconceived.

From there it’s been an uphill battle including exclusions from the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2016 and now the 2018 World Cup, all while being a vital cog in Real Madrid’s elite attacking engine.

Legal issues, the latest of which involves former team-mate Mathieu Valbuena, have dogged Benzema throughout his career, but politics have often got involved where they shouldn’t have.

Ask a member of the French public what they think of Benzema and there’s every chance they’ll turn the air blue. Ask Cristiano Ronaldo and he’ll talk about his qualities on and off the pitch for hours.

Loved by some, hated by others, Benzema’s stature as a brilliantly talented but often mistrusted player sums France’s Golden Generation up perfectly.

Take note, Kylian Mbappe and co.