The Ten Greatest French Club Sides of All Time – Part 1

Today sees the start of a new series on French Football Weekly. The Orwell prize nominated writer Juliet Jacques has selected the 10 Greatest French club sides of all time.

To kick-off the countdown we start with an introduction and the team chosen in 10th place.

French and European club competition owes much to former France player and manager Gabriel Hanot. Working as a sports journalist for Miroir des Sports after his playing career was ended by an aviation accident, Hanothe pushed for professionalisation, which was realised with the establishment of the French national league in 1932. Two years later, Hanot suggested that Europe’s leading clubs play in other leagues for short periods, an idea that attracted some interest but prompted no serious action before the outbreak of war.

By the 1950s, with air travel more accessible and floodlit matches possible, some form of continental club competition looked viable. Even the insular English displayed an interest in international challenges, and when League winners Wolverhampton Wanderers beat mighty Honved in December 1954, the Daily Express proclaimed them ‘champions of Europe’.

Irked, Hanot, now editor of L’Equipe, proposed a continent-wide knockout tournament to test the English newspaper’s contenion, with the champions of national leagues playing home and away legs before a final in Paris. UEFA adopted Hanot’s idea, and the European Cup began in September 1955. The record of French clubs in international competition since has been astoundingly poor – but this history almost began very differently.

10. AS Monaco, 1997-2000

First French champions in 1962 (despite not being part of France), AS Monaco frequently came close to, but never quite achieved sustained greatness after returning to Division 1 in 1977 and winning Le Championnat the next season. Victorious again in 1982, they provided several members of France’s World Cup semi-finalists and 1984 European Champions, three of whom – Manuel Amoros, Patrick Battiston and Jean-Luc Ettori – were still at the club when Arsène Wenger secured his only French title in 1988.

With Bez’s Bordeaux destroyed, Wenger’s side twice finished second to Olympique de Marseille, nearly beating them to becoming the first French team to win a European competition when they lost the 1992 Cup Winners’ Cup final to Werder Bremen. The following season, they finished third, but entered the Champions League after PSG refused to replace OM following the match-fixing scandal (below), eventually reaching the semi-finals.

Wenger left soon afterwards, having been denied permission to discuss the vacant post at Bayern Munich; key players George Weah, Lilian Thuram and Youri Djorkaeff also departed, but Jean Tigana became manager in 1995 and built a strong side that reclaimed the title two years later. Tigana’s Monaco produced several players crucial to Les Bleus’ international dominance between 1998 and 2002 – Thierry Henry and David Trézéguet came through the ranks, whilst Fabien Barthez and Emmanuel Petit gained crucial experience under Tigana’s stewardship (although Petit only cemented his place in the national side after joining Wenger at Arsenal).

In 1998, Monaco were surprisingly deposed by Lens, who won their only championship, but reached the Champions League semi-final, thanks largely to a magical midfield quartet of Ali Benarbia and Sylvain Legwinski – both unfortunate not to be capped, owing to the strength of France’s golden generation (Benarbia later represented Algeria) – winger Henry and playmaker John Collins. Claude Puel took over in 1999 and won Monaco’s most recent title. Despite rumoured financial problems, Puel’s successor Didier Deschamps took Monaco to the Champions League final in 2004; they are still the last French club to reach that stage.

After Deschamps left, Monaco failed to launch another title challenge, and half a decade of stagnation ended with their relegation in 2011, and the 1997-2000 side remains just about the best in their 92-year history.

Best XI: Fabien Barthez; Willy Sagnol, Philippe Léonard, Rafael Márquez, Emmanuel Petit; Ali Benarbia, Ludovic Giuly, John Collins, Thierry Henry; Marco Simone, David Trézéguet.

Honours: French champions: 1997, 2000.

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