England play France at Wembley next week & reports of the French national team's demise have been greatly exaggerated. As well as giving the football world Laurent Robert, Reunion Island is also providing it with less tempremental players. Josh Clarke explains.
The likes of Algeria's Zinedine Zidane, Ghana's Marcel Desailly, and Senegal's Patrick Vieira have made French football fans eternally grateful for their nation's historical colonial endeavours. However, it is the unlikely tropical island of Réunion that is flourishing as the feeder colony for the new wave of stars to grace Les Blues first team.
Lying tranquilly some 900km off the east coast of Madagascar, bobbing alone in the Indian Ocean, Réunion boasts a diminutive population of only 800'000. Other than world-record breaking daily rainfall records in 1952 and a recent epidemic of the mosquito-borne disease chikungunya, it seems that Réunion could almost be the land that time forgot. Indeed, in footballing terms, other than Jean-Pierre Papin's brief end-of-career cameo at JS Saint-Pierrose, the overseas département of France could be described as an anonymous spectator in world football.
Challenging the status of sugar as the island's main export is Réunionnais Ligue 1 sensations, slash, potential answers to the French national team dilemma.
The names of quintessential modern target-man Guillerme Hoarau and atypical French mercurial winger Dimitri Payet may only be vaguely familiar to the most thorough of English transfer gossip column readers, yet in France they're quickly establishing themselves as Ligue 1's most exciting prospects. Both Hoarau and Payet began their careers at JS Saint-Pierrose, Réunion's biggest club, before taking the reverse journey to Papin, travelling to France to ignite their careers.
However, neither set France alight immediately. Indeed, Hourau only scored 5 goals in 28 matches in his first season at Le Harve, before getting a modest 8 in 21 once on loan to FC Gueugnon, both at Ligue 2 level. It was the next season, where Hoarau notched up 28 goals in 38 games and the player of the year award, that people began to stand up and take notice. The epithet given to him by the French media - 'the Karim Benzema of Ligue 2' - may not seem so impressive now, but back when the Galactico bench warmer was banging them in for Lyon, it was quite the accolade. A 500'000Euros move to PSG was pushed through, described by former PSG president and hyperbole indulger Alain Cayzac as the 'signing of the century'. Hoarau's first season in Ligue 1 gave backing to Cayzac's bold statement, as the striker registered 20 goals, helping PSG to second place in the table, to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, and becoming number one of several top European managers' Christmas wish-lists.
Diminutive winger Dimitri Payet found the jump from Réunion to France equally as hard, perhaps due to the fact that his first attempt was during his childhood. Spending some time as a junior at Le Havre, Payet decided to move back to Réunion for a short-lived spell at AS Excelsior, before signing his first professional contract with Ligue 1's FC Nantes. He made his debut for the club aged 18 and after a season of assured first team football, Payet moved to St. Étienne, where he has since earned rave reviews. A hat-trick this August against Lens has helped propel him to the top of Ligue 1's scoring charts, where he has got 8 in 12 games. Not bad for a winger.
Indeed, the timely good form of Hoarau and Payet could not have come at a more convenient time for a country whose national team is currently facing a massive identity crisis.
The well-publicised French Revolution of South Africa 2010 was supposed to lead to a pandemonium that even the Robbespierrean beheading of Nicolas Anelka could not solve. Newly appointed Laurent Blanc's out-of-sight-out-of-mind team selection for the first post-WC match against Norway (Blanc selected 23 players, including Hoarau, who did not make the WC squad) did not bode well. A 2-1 loss had the naysayers bitterly pointing out that a France without its' famed Clairefontaine graduates lacked both the style and punch of the World Cup 98 and Euro 2000 winners.
That said, Blanc's rebuilding effort, featuring a mixture of the not-so-old of Karim Benzema and Yohann Gourcuff and the brand-spanking new of Hoarau and Payet amongst others, appears to be quietly doing a job in the Euro 2012 qualifiers. Aside from an embarrassing 1-0 loss at home to Belarus, the wheels seem to have clicked into motion and three, unspectacular yet successive 2-0 wins have left France top of the group.
Hoarau and Payet have played central roles in this resurgence. Hoarau has started three out of five of Blanc’s games in charge. Admittedly, his contribution has not won too many plaudits, yet his inclusion points towards a move away from the familiar French approach as encapsulated by Messrs Henry, Anelka and Trezeguet, towards a stylistic more suited to the best players available for selection. Although Hoarau has not repaid Blanc's faith with a goal, it is clearly the aim that his physical presence upfront will provide the platform for Gourcuff, Benzema, Nasri and others to play a game that benefits greatly when working off a focal point such as Hoarau. Payet, on the other hand, made his debut as a substitute against Romania providing an assist for Gourcuff, a feat he then repeated in his next and France's latest game against Luxembourg. It is already abundantly clear that the young winger is not only capable of carrying his fine club form through to international level, but of challenging the plethora of like-for-like players currently in the squad.
Perhaps then, the future of French football, or at very least, its fate in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, could be in part determined by Réunionnais imports. Of course, to compare Hoarau and Payet just yet to the generation of French footballers that preceded them is futile at best. However, their glittering form at club level points to the fact that at this moment in time, the boys from the tropical island appear to be ready to step up to the task.
You can see more of Josh's work at his excellent blog www.the39thgame.blogspot.com