France may be about to host Euro 2016 without one of its best players, but the country’s legendary defender Marcel Desailly insists this current crop of stars is better than the golden generation which became world and European champions in 1998 and 2000.
As well as Desailly, the team which lifted the World Cup on home soil in 1998 before going on to win Euro 2000 boasted talents such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Zinedine Zidane and current French coach Didier Deschamps.
“Technically they are better than my generation,” Desailly told CNN’s Amanda Davies, referring to Deschamps’ squad that includes players like Paul Pogba, Rafael Varane, Antoine Greizmann, Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial.
“The team is quite peaceful,” adds Desailly, who played for AC Milan and Chelsea during a glittering 20-year playing career.
However, France’s preparations for hosting Europe’s biggest soccer tournament have not been without incident.
A very public blackmail scandal involving Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena, has meant the former — France’s first-choice striker, who plays for Real Madrid — will play no part in the competition, which begins in Paris on June 10.
Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho may also miss the tournament after a failed drugs test last month.
Despite those problems, Desailly urged the French players to pull together as it bids to win a major tournament on home soil for the third time in its history.
As well as that World Cup win in 1998, France also won the 1984 European Championship.
“We just want to see if collectively — altogether, at the same time — they are going to perform,” said Desailly.
Desailly’s major concern is whether Deschamps’ team has enough strong characters to pull them through the many obstacles teams face during major tournaments.
The 1984 team had leaders of the caliber of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse, while the 1998 and 2000 teams were marshaled by the likes of Desailly, Deschamps and Lilian Thuram.
In contrast, the modern French team is captained by the reserved Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, while the most-capped midfielder in recent France squads has been Crystal Palace’s Yohan Cabaye (44). “There are no leaders,” remarks Desailly.
In 2015 the average age of the French team was 27 years, according to the CIES Football Observatory.
And based on that data, England will be the youngest team at Euro 2016, boasting an average age of of 25.6 years.
“I really believe that they can be that surprise that is coming from nowhere,” says Desailly of Roy Hodgson’s England team, before going on to draw comparisons with the Greece team of 2002.
“Individually they are better than the Greeks at the time, even if they are younger,” adds Desailly. “I think they can be the real surprise.”