Blanc, Benazzi farewells signal end of French golden era

LAURENT BLANC and Abdelatif Benazzi, who both ended their careers recently, symbolised a golden era for French sport.

LAURENT BLANC and Abdelatif Benazzi, who both ended their careers recently, symbolised a golden era for French sport.

Manchester United's French defender Laurent Blanc holds the Premier League Trophy after defeating Everton at Goodison Park in Liverpool. Blanc ended his professional career as a footballer with the last match of the Premier League season. — Pic. AFP-

Blanc, the 1998 World Cup-winning defender, finished his playing days with Premier League champions Manchester United at Everton, while utility forward Benazzi ended his rugby union career turning out for Saracens at Sale.

Their retirements turned a page on the most successful sporting decade in the history of a nation once more renowned for its cheese and wine than its sporting prowess.

Blanc, who bade farewell to professional soccer at 37 after 20 years in the game, did not captain France in their 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 campaigns. But he was dubbed "The President", a clear sign of who the boss was in the squad.

Benazzi never won a world title but remains one of the few to have played in three World Cups — 1991, 1995 and 1999.

Their paths to sporting glory may look different but they were the perfect illustrations of the blend that turned France into Europe's leading sports nation at the turn of the century.

Blanc, who retired from international football with 97 caps, typified France's youth system launched in the 1970s, which helped the country become soccer's leading power.

Benazzi, meanwhile, was not a home-bred sportsman but an import from the north-African country of Morocco.

Spotted and trained at Montpellier, Blanc stayed with his hometown club for eight years before a disappointing one-year stint at Napoli in the 1991-1992 season.

At the time, a French player in a foreign league was the exception rather than the rule.

But the man who made headlines by kissing the bald skull of France's goalkeeper Fabien Barthez started a trend that has not stopped. Almost 100 French professionals now play abroad.

"I had a long career, or I should say I was lucky to have a long career, and I was super lucky to spend my last four seasons at two great clubs, Inter (Milan) and Manchester United," Blanc told sports daily L'Equipe.

"Even if I had ups and downs and even if I made the wrong choice at times, satisfaction dominates. I'm not jumping up and down with joy, I'm just pleased to have had an accomplished career."

Blanc also has the satisfaction of belonging to the generation that did what the previous one, the era of Michel Platini and Jean Tigana, failed to do — win the World Cup.

Benazzi never quite made it that far, failing in the 1999 final against Australia and coming close in 1995 in a semi-final against South Africa when he was stopped inches from a try that would have put France into the final.

Born in Oujda, Morocco, in 1968, he became a trailblazer for the strong French community with North African origins — a community that also spawned soccer's former World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane.

"I broke a number of taboos in a very conservative sport and to be honest, I'm very proud of it," he told French daily France Soir.

Benazzi's success, and his 78 games for his adopted country, also paved the way for the "black, blanc, beur" (black, white, Arab) craze that gripped France in 1998 when its soccer team won the World Cup.

After leaving France at the turn of the century they truly made their mark abroad and in the process significantly raised the profile of their home country in the sporting world.