England vs France Preview: A Happy Reunion for Laurent Blanc's France
As England play their completely unnecessary friendly against France this evening, two players from the French colonial out-post of the Reunion Islands are making a claim to be the next Hot Young Things of European football.
Ever since the Senegalese born Raoul Diagne pulled on the famous Blue shirt in 1920, France has welcomed their colonial brothers into the national team with open arms. The Golden Generation of 1998-2000 were known as the Black, Blanc, Beur squad (black, white, Arab), including the likes of Zinedine Zidane (Algerian), Marcel Desailly (Ghanaian) and Patrick Vieira (Senegalese). However, it is currently the tiny island of Reunion that is flourishing as the feeder colony to Les Bleus.
Lying 900km east of Madagascar, this tropical Indian Ocean island boasts a diminutive population of 800,000. Were it not for a record-breaking daily rainfall in 1952 (73.62 inches, if you must know), and a recent outbreak of the Chikungunya disease, which has populated almost a third of the island, Reunion could claim to be the land that time forgot. And in footballing terms, other than the fact that former Newcastle hell-raiser Laurent Robert was born there, it probably is.
Challenging the idea of sugar as the island's main export is Reunion's new Ligue 1 sensations/ answer to the French national team's current dilemma.
The names of target-man Guillerme Hoarau and mercurial winger Dimitri Payet may only be vaguely familiar to the most ardent of English transfer gossip column readers, but in France they are quickly becoming Ligue 1's most exciting young prospects. Both Hoarau and Payet began their careers at JS Saint-Pierrose, Reunion's biggest club, before moving to France to ignite their professional careers.
Guillerme Hoarau: 'The French Emile Heskey'
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 name given to him by the French media – ‘the Karim Benzema of Ligue 2′ – may not seem so impressive now, but back when the Madrid 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 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
Dimitri Payet: France's new Hot Young Thing
Diminutive winger Dimitri Payet found the jump from Reunion to France equally as hard, perhaps due to the fact that his first attempt was during his childhood, aged just 12. Spending some time as a junior at Le Havre, Payet decided to move back to Reunion, 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. Etienne, where he has since earned rave reviews. A hat-trick this August against Lens has helped propel him to third in Ligue 1′s scoring charts, where he has got 8 in 12 games. Not bad for a winger.
Indeed, the current good form of both Hoarau and Payet could not have come at a better time for Les Bleus. The national team are currently going through a massive identity crisis after the much-publisised French Revolution at this summer's World Cup.
After the sacking of Raymond Domenech, newly appointed manager Laurent Blanc decided not to select any of the players from the World Cup squad for his fiirst game in charge, a friendly away to Norway. And a 2-1 loss in that game had the media proclaiming that a French national team without its' famed Clairefontaine graduates lacked both the style and the substance of the World Cup 98 and Euro 2000 winners.
The only way is up for Les Bleus
That said, after Blanc had calmed down, his subsequent squads, with a mixture of the not-so-old Karim Benzema and Yohann Gourcuff, and the brand-spanking-new Hoarau and Payet, amongst others, seems to be doing the job. Apart from an embarrassing 1-0 home defeat to Belarus, three unspectacular, yet successive 2-0 wins over Bosnia, Romania and Luxembourg have left France top of their Euro 2012 qualifying group.
And Hoarau and Payet have played a vital role in France's current resurgence. Hoarau has started in all three of France's successive 2-0 wins, and although he hasn't repaid Blanc's faith with a goal, his inclusion in the team is seen as a platform for the likes of Benzema, Gourcuff and Nasri to work off. Almost like a French Emile Heskey. Payet, on the other hand, made his debut in the 2-0 win over Romania, coming on as a substitute and setting up both goals in the process. A feat he then repeated in the next game against Luxembourg. It is already abundantly clear that the young winger, with his lightning pace and direct running, can not only repeat his club form on the international stage, but also cement a starting place in the French XI.
It seems then, that the long tradition of French footballing imports is set to continue with the boys from the tropical isle.