FC (French Connection) Bayern Munich: the unlikely home of French world champions past and present
Ever since Bixente Lizarazu pitched up at Säbener Straße in the late 1990s, Bayern Munich has been home to some of the best French players in the business, including three who featured in Les Bleus' most recent FIFA World Cup triumph at Russia 2018.
At the end of his first season in Bavaria, 1997/98, Lizarazu was France's starting left-back as they claimed their maiden World Cup title on home soil, beating Brazil 3-0 in the final. And he had already picked up two of his six Bundesliga titles by the time he helped his country conquer the European Championship crown two years later.
Franck Ribery, the most iconic French player in Bundesliga history, was a little unlucky not to follow in Lizarazu's footsteps, starting the 2006 World Cup final that France eventually lost on penalties to Italy – although he was able to console himself at club level, winning nine league titles, six DFB Cups and the UEFA Champions League with the record champions.
Fast forward to the present and three of Bayern's current crop of 'Gallicos' – Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez and Corentin Tolisso – were part of the France squad who got their hands on the 2018 World Cup trophy in Russia, and a fourth, Kingsley Coman, would surely have been there if not for injury. Pavard and Hernandez both started the final against Croatia, and the former even netted the goal of the tournament, rifling in an absolute thunderbolt in the round-of-16 win over Argentina.
"We're proud of this tradition," Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge enthused in a recent interview with France Football. "It all started with Bixente Lizarazu and Willy Sagnol, who were pioneers in some respect, and key wide players for us. Because of their mentality and style of play, French players suit Bayern well. We're very satisfied with all our Franzosen."
Lizarazu and Sagnol may have inspired Bayern's love affair with France, but they were not actually the first players to shrug on the famous red jersey – that honour goes to a certain Jean-Pierre Papin, one of the best strikers of his generation and winner of the 1991 Ballon d'Or. Yet while he helped the Bavarians land the UEFA Cup in 1995/96, his two-season stint in Germany was underwhelming, especially for a man who had previously notched 175 goals in 266 games for Marseille. Admittedly not spared by injuries, Papin scored only six goals in 40 senior appearances for Bayern – one of them a stunning bicycle kick against Uerdingen.
Compare that to the 273 outings Lizarazu made for the club between 1997 and 2006, on his way to lifting 17 trophies. Or the 277 appearances made between 2000 and 2008 by Sagnol, an intelligent right-back with great distribution who quickly became a fan favourite, winning five Bundesliga titles, four DFB Cups and the Champions League.
Ribery was midway through his second season with Bayern when Sagnol hung up his boots, but the ex-Marseille man would soon eclipse both of his illustrious predecessors. 'Kaiser Franck' played a staggering 425 matches for the club, the most ever by a non-German, and scored 124 goals across 12 glittering seasons. He was arguably the best player in the world when Bayern claimed their historic treble in 2012/13 – even if the 2013 Ballon d'Or went to Cristiano Ronaldo – and by the time he left in 2019, aged 36, he had amassed a sizeable collection of 18 trophies.
"Uli Hoeneß was like a second father to Franck, and I was like a second mother," Rummenigge laughed, when reminiscing about Ribery extending his Bayern contract in 2010. "I made a bet that he would stay, and so did Uli. We came away with an excellent bottle of red wine from the south of France…"
Watch: Franck Ribery, 12 years at Bayern, 12 goals
Bayern's current vintage will also be hoping to emulate Ribery and keep improving with age. The recent arrival of 18-year-old centre-back Tanguy Nianzou – who opted to join the Bavarian giants rather than sign professional terms with boyhood club Paris Saint-Germain – means that Hansi Flick now has six Frenchmen in his squad: Pavard, Hernandez, Tolisso, Coman, Nianzou and Michael Cuisance.
That means there are now more current World Cup champions plying their trade at German champions Bayern (Pavard, Hernandez and Tolisso) than at French champions PSG (Presnel Kimpembe and Kylian Mbappé).
"We're talking about the country of the world champions, and no nation wins that trophy by accident," Rummenigge explained. "The most spectacular thing for me is the French youth system, which is unique. The players are very well prepared: physically, technically and tactically. You've got 20-year-olds showing remarkable maturity, in both their gameplay and their personality. They're really helping to enrich German football clubs."
Pavard is the perfect example of the great strides French players are able to make when they combine their excellent academy training back home with the Vorsprung durch Technik of German professional football. At the age of 20, he was happy to trade Ligue 1 side Lille for Bundesliga 2 outfit VfB Stuttgart. Within a year he had helped Die Schwaben return to the big time, and a brilliant first Bundesliga season was enough to earn him a spot on the plane for Russia with Les Bleus, and a subsequent move to Bayern in summer 2019.
His first full season under Niko Kovac and Flick has been a resounding success. With 31 starts in the Bundesliga, he was Bayern's second-most-used outfield player, behind Joshua Kimmich but ahead of Robert Lewandowski. He has also added goals to his game, scoring four and setting up another four on his way to a first Meisterschale.
New boy Nianzou will no doubt have noted that young players are often given their shot in the Bundesliga, even at Germany's most decorated club. Alphonso Davies has been a revelation at left-back, earning the 2019/20 Rookie of the Season award, while 20-year-old Cuisance, a substitute for most of the campaign, served notice of his abilities with a gorgeous goal against Wolfsburg on the final day. Coman, all of 24, is already a five-time Bundesliga winner.
"Obviously, nobody is giving away French players, but they represent real value for money," Rummenigge pointed out. "We adore them, and they feel good here in Germany. France boasts an exceptional pool of talent."
Indeed it does, yet it is over the Rhine in Germany where some of France's top talents are flourishing. And if Bayern and their Six Musketeers have anything to do with it, they'll continue to bring a touch of je ne sais quoi to the Bundesliga for many years to come.
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