The 10 best French players ever have something in common: and no, it's not that beautiful accent.
France has produced many a top footballer over the past few decades but the best all have what they would perhaps call a "je ne sais quoi". Les Bleus has been stacked with mercurial footballers, water carriers and geniuses – and everyone on our list has that undeterminable spirit that has taken them from the banlieues to beyond.
Who's the greatest of them all though? Well, that would be giving it away…
The 10 best French players ever: 10. N'Golo Kante
"He is small, he is kind, he stopped Leo Messi," goes the chant for N'Golo Kante, whose rise from Ligue 2 to one of the greatest midfielders of his generation has captured hearts far beyond the borders of his home.
Originally likened to fellow Les Bleus destroyer Claude Makelele, Kante has transcended comparisons to win everything in the game. His performances during title-winning campaigns at Leicester and Chelsea were impressive enough before his Champions League final display against Manchester City completed his set – he's always been peerless for Didier Deschamps in the national set-up, too.
9. Didier Deschamps
Long before he led his nation to the Coupe de Monde as a manager, Didier Deschamps was the on-field voice in the head of every other Blue on the field. They just don't make leaders like him anymore: his organisational skills were only second to his hunger to retrieve balls and kickstart attacks – and he was a key member of the 1998 world champions.
He was fantastic at club level, too. The youngest captain to win the Champions League while at Marseille, Deschamps then repeated the feat at Juventus, before coming second in the competition another three times. Even in his latter days at Valencia, DD was a pillar of strength: and what a career he had.
8. Franck Ribery
In terms of pure talent, Franck Ribery might be the most underrated French star ever. Maybe it's because his peak came sandwiched between two golden generations – or perhaps it's that he spent the majority of his career toiling away in Bavaria opposite the flashier Arjen Robben. But he might be the greatest-ever Frenchman to have never lifted an international trophy.
Either way, Ribery was magnificent at his peak, bursting into public consciousness in 2006 as a bustling winger and eventually maturing into one of the most graceful wide players of the 2010s. He won everything at Bayern Munich but the World Cup eluded him: if only Les Bleus had won in 2006…
7. Marcel Desailly
Once you get over a defender wearing the No.8 shirt, there was so much to love about Marcel Desailly, who like Deschamps, won Champions Leagues at Marseille and in Italy. The Rock was physically supreme, capable of leading his backline and intercepting attacks – but his completeness as a footballer belied his obvious strength.
Because while Desailly was thought of mostly as a tough-tackling centre-back who wouldn't let anyone past him, he was technically gifted, too. He offered deftness and progressive passing in midfield, could make late darts into the box and was a fearless leader in the French side for both '98 and 2000 triumphs.
6. Lilian Thuram
Lilian Thuram was a defender beyond compare for much of his career, combining an elegance on the ball with combative aggression out of possession. Originally a right-back during France '98, he ended up moving centrally during the run to the 2006 World Cup final.
At club level, he reigned supreme too. He was an integral member of the iconic Parma side of the late 1990s before moving to Juventus, then Barcelona. Despite this glittering career, however, he only won two domestic titles and never lifted a Champions League, retiring in 2008 when Pep Guardiola got the Barça job. Still, Thuram is one of the most admired footballers of an iconic crop.
5. Eric Cantona
At Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup, Eric Cantona went on record as supporting England – a reflection perhaps of his struggles in international football. King Eric was dropped following the Crystal Palace kung-fu kick, never regaining his place when Zinedine Zidane took it. Perhaps in the pantheon of French footballing icons, he's suffered as a result.
Yet there's no denying the brilliance and genius of the former Manchester United talisman, who didn't just transform Old Trafford but English football with his presence. A beguiling footballer of immense power, vision and big-game moments – and let's not forget just how controversial it was to have left him at home for Euro 96. Cantona may not have had a fair crack of the whip for France but he's still one of the all-time greats that the nation has produced.
4. Patrick Vieira
The headline of the Daily Mirror declared that Arsenal had won the World Cup, the day after France had beaten Brazil 3-0 on home soil in the 1998 final, thanks to a goal from Emmanuel Petit and an all-action midfield display from Patrick Vieira. The Arsenal press room still has a clipping framed.
Oh, Vieira stood on top of the world, all right. At his best, there may not be a midfielder as complete as he was. He would win every ball going in the centre of the park, could drive forward with pace and strength and his passing was excellent. He wasn't just box-to-box but touchline-to-touchline: it was like having two or three extra players. Every player he played alongside improved with a presence like him next to them.
He was a cheat code of a footballer for club and country, winning three titles with the Gunners and being the beating heart for his nation for the best part of a decade. He would get into any midfield in French footballing history: and he would run it.
3. Michel Platini
Quick, elegant and possessing a passing range that would make the likes of Paul Pogba weep, Michel Platini was simply one of the greatest football players of all time.
Le Roi was prolific in front of goal, too, top-scoring in Italian football at a time when defences were meaner than Cantona quips – and despite Platini's lack of athletic acumen, he could slalom through opposition players like traffic cones. When he played, you were simply drawn to his movement.
And the world loved him. He was the brain at Saint-Etienne before Serie A called; he was a European Cup runner-up in '83, lit up Euro 84 as France swept all before them and then finally won the European Cup in '85 with Juventus – and he capped each year with a Ballon d'Or. Platini was majestic: he's certainly the most talented Frenchman to have never lifted the World Cup.
2. Thierry Henry
The 1998 World Cup final still stings for Thierry Henry, who was due to come on as a substitute before Desailly's untimely red card. Just 20 when the tournament landed in his home country, the three-time capped Monaco winger ended up impressing for his nation in '98 – he top-scored for Les Bleus – but football had seen nothing yet.
Henry became a colossus in the years that followed. He top-scored in four Premier League seasons at Arsenal, put the Gunners on his back for an unbeaten title and set a still-to-be-beaten assists record. He moved back to the left-wing at Barcelona, won a treble and he set the all-time scoring record for his nation with 51 goals.
But even these headlines don't tell of his genius. He was more powerful than any striker on the planet yet capable of grace like few other strikers. He was lightning quick yet creative, he would drift aimlessly yet always be where he was needed. There's a reason why almost every defender who played against him rates him as their greatest foe. He was both ferociously prolific and hugely entertaining.
1. Zinedine Zidane
Others may have scored more goals. Others may have won more trophies – though not that many more. But no one embodied French football like Zidane. No one captured imagination quite like him. And no one has a highlights reel to match.
Remarkable displays for Juventus – who reached Champions League finals in '97 and '98 – brought Zizou to the spotlight but it was at the Stade de France against Brazil that he truly announced himself the man for the big occasion. He followed it up by becoming the most expensive player ever, then toyed with defenders Euro 2000 for another international trophy, before inspiring Real Madrid to a 2002 Champions League, courtesy of that goal.
He was just otherworldly: effortless and aggressive, the softest touch and the hardest shot, with the penchant for a mazy run and unbelievable ability to hold onto the ball against all odds. His 2006 World Cup was yet another masterclass as he dominated Brazil all by himself and held Italy in the palm of his hand, panenka'ing a penalty in the final.
True to his legend, he went out with a bang. The man for the big match, Zidane has perhaps given more joy to French football than anyone else – and few will ever match his legacy, in France or beyond.
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