France’s victory on home soil at the 1998 World Cup – a 3-0 win over Brazil at the Stade de France – is arguably France’s biggest footballing triumph, if not one of their greatest sporting triumphs. Since then, their World Cup record has been as bipolar as they come: two inglorious group stage exits in 2002 and 2010 (the latter of which was particularly humiliating) and a trip to the final in 2006 only to be ousted by Italy on penalties.
Regardless, there’s a reason why France is held so highly with regards to their place in the footballing world, even if their national team hasn’t given the French people a lot to cheer about save for their performances in 2006. With that in mind, we’ll be counting down the top 10 players that have donned the uniform of Les Bleus over the years following their triumphant victory in 1998.
Many of these players were in fact on the 1998 team, but this focuses mainly on their accomplishments following that year; for example, what these players have accomplished on a club level as their careers have come to a close, or how important they were to the team that won at Euro 2000 or the 2006 World Cup team.
A few players (Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Franck Ribery) are still active in the game today, but most have retired, with some going on to a managerial role with clubs in France. No matter where they are nowadays, these 10 men have accomplished plenty and given their supporters back home a reason to be proud of the footballers they’ve produced even if actual results on the pitch have been mixed, and if their careers have seen a bit of controversy here and there. Here are the 10 best French footballers since 1998.
10 David Trezeguet
Although you could make a case for Youri Djorkaeff or Laurent Blanc (despite his retirement in 2003) for the 10th spot on this list, Trezeguet wins out here due to his prolific goalscoring abilities while at Monaco and Juventus. His striking partnership with Thierry Henry at Monaco was lethal especially given how young the two were, but it was at Juve where Trezeguet would really establish himself, with three seasons where he’d score 20 goals or more – in addition to two Serie A titles. Despite missing a penalty that denied France the World Cup in 2006, Trezeguet scored 34 goals in 71 total appearances for France.
9 Emmanuel Petit
His blonde ponytail made his physical appearance distinctive, but it was his abilities on the pitch that really set Emmanuel Petit apart from his peers. Although his scoring of the third goal in France’s World Cup-winning victory in 1998 helped make him famous, he did a bit more than just that: he was also part of the Euro 2000-winning French team, and won the Premier League with Arsenal the same year he won the World Cup. Following that, he would enjoy stints at Barcelona and Chelsea before calling it quits in 2005 due to him needing a knee operation.
8 Claude Makelele
Throughout his career, he was good enough to make the defensive midfield role known as the “Makelele role”. If that’s not a testament to how good he was in his day, nothing is. Although he didn’t make the World Cup-winning side in 1998 despite having a successful season at Marseille that year, Makelele would eventually become a fixture in the national side and was on the team that finished runners-up at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He also won two La Liga titles and a Champions League title with Real Madrid and two Premier League titles with Chelsea.
7 Fabien Barthez
One of the greatest goalkeepers to ever come out of France, Fabien Barthez was first a regular goalkeeper at Marseille and then at Monaco before getting between the sticks at Manchester United from 2000 until 2004. Although he was the number one keeper for France at the 1998 World Cup when they went all the way, he also helped guide them to the European Championship two years later, and would be a regular number one keeper up until the 2006 World Cup. After 1998, Barthez would win a Ligue 1 title with Monaco and two Premier League titles with Manchester United.
6 Marcel Desailly
Although he was born in Ghana and adopted when his mother married the head of the French Consulate in the capital city of Accra, moving to the country when he was four, Marcel Desailly is still easily one of France’s best ever defenders. With 116 caps under his belt, Desailly was a regular part of the French team that won in 1998, but would stay a fixture with Les Bleus until 2004. After his part in the 1998 victory, Desailly would move to Chelsea, with whom he would win the UEFA Super Cup that year, and he would also eventually be named as part of the FIFA 100.
5 Patrick Vieira
While he played for several high profile clubs in his day – Juventus, Inter and Manchester City among them – Patrick Vieira saw his biggest club success as a member of Arsenal. While with the Gunners, he would become part of the 1998 team that won the World Cup at home in France, and would eventually get 107 caps in total for Les Bleus including roles with their Euro 2000-winning side as well as the team that made it to the final at the World Cup in 2006. As far as his club success is concerned, he would win three Premier League titles with Arsenal, and four consecutive Serie A titles with Internazionale.
4 Franck Ribery
He was certainly a late bloomer when he arrived onto the scene, and his place in Raymond Domenech’s side at the 2006 World Cup in Germany surprised many at the time, but Franck Ribery’s place among football’s elite is now undoubtedly justified. The Bayern Munich winger has gained 80 caps and 16 goals for the French national team, and has racked up four Bundesliga titles and a Champions League title in 2012-13. Renowned for his blistering pace and precision with the ball, Ribery – referred to by Zinedine Zidane as “the jewel of French football” – is expected to lead France’s offense this year at the World Cup in Brazil.
3 Lilian Thuram
He’s the most capped player in the history of the French national team with 142 caps and two goals, and those two goals came in one of the most important matches of their World Cup campaign in 1998. Down 1-0 to Croatia in the semifinals thanks to a goal from Davor Suker, Thuram countered by scoring two to give France a come from behind victory, helping Thuram win the Bronze Ball in the tournament. He would also be a part of the 2006 side that finished second. His club days would see him eventually joining Juventus and Barcelona, and he would win two Serie A titles with the former.
2 Thierry Henry
If you’ve become your club’s all-time leading scorer and had a statue commemorating you outside their stadium, it goes without saying that you’ve done something right. For Thierry Henry, he’s done that and so much more: he’s won league titles with Monaco, Arsenal and Barcelona, he’s won multiple individual awards with every club he’s been a part of, and he helped France win the World Cup in 1998 – becoming a fixture of the national team up until his international retirement in 2010. Now plying his trade with the New York Red Bulls in the MLS, Henry still attracts fans whenever the Red Bulls play away games.
1 Zinedine Zidane
The infamous headbutt incident in 2006 notwithstanding, Zinedine Zidane sealed his reputation as one of the greatest footballers of all time quite a while ago. His vision and his abilities with the ball were second to none, he scored twice in the World Cup final in 1998, and won multiple league titles with Juventus and Real Madrid – the latter of which he won a Champions League title with in 2001-02. Zizou also won the FIFA World Player of the Year Award on three occasions, and scored 31 goals in 108 appearances for the French national team. He’s now an assistant coach with Real Madrid, who just recently triumphed over crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final.