The 10 Greatest French Players in Football History [Ranked]

France have produced so many icons over the years with Theirry Henry and Zinedine Zidane all making this list of the best French players of all time....CONTINUE READING

Highlights

  • French players have left an indelible mark on football with their unique blend of grace, skill, mentality, and personality.
  • The very finest French football icons have been ranked based on international success, club achievements, awards, and legacy in the sport.
  • From Eric Cantona to Kylian Mbappe, these players have showcased talent on the field, contributing significantly to French football history.

Football would not be football as we know it without the French. Bringing that unique blend of grace, winning mentality, personality and skill, there have been so many iconic players from France over the years.

From older generations, such as Just Fontaine and then Jean-Pierre Papin after him, to more modern icons such as Robert Pires and Karim Benzema, there has been such a vast array of talent it’s no easy task naming the very best of them. But GIVEMESPORT has decided to have a go and rank the top 10 – with none of those aforementioned stars making the cut.

Ranking factors

  • International achievements (honours, appearances, goals, assists, etc)
  • Importance within the France team
  • Club achievements (honours, appearances, goals, assists, etc)
  • Individual awards
  • Legacy within football

10 Eric Cantona

Career Span: 1983 -1997

Eric Cantona of France looking on

Eric Cantona would feature higher on this list if he’d achieved more with the international team. Unfortunately, however, his big personality meant his France career came to a premature end in 1997, just before they won the World Cup. He fell out with Henri Michel, got back in under Michel Platini and then lost his spot in the team after his ban on football following his infamous karate kick for Manchester United vs Crystal Palace.

Even so, he still managed an impressive 20 goals in 45 games. And as he achieved plenty in England with the Red Devils – as well as winning silverware with Auxerre, Marseille, Montpellier, and Leeds before that – he will go down as one of the finest players in football history. If only he didn’t retire so young.

Eric Cantona: International Career
Games 45
Goals 20
Assists 3
Honours None

9 Marcel Desailly

Career Span: 1986-2006

Marcel Desailly holds the World Cup trophy

Marcel Desailly was one of the finest defensive-minded footballers to ever grace the sport. Able to play as either a centre-back or a defensive midfielder, the Frenchman picked up over 100 caps for his country – starting every game as they won the World Cup and the Euros.

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His club career wasn’t bad either, with Desailly picking up a Champions League trophy in 1993 with Marseille and then another with AC Milan the following year. He also won honours Serie on two occasions, as well as the FA Cup with Chelsea – proving to be one of the finest Premier League defenders of all time – before heading to Qatar to end his career in the mid-2000s.

Marcel Desailly: International Career
Games 116
Goals 3
Assists 2
Honours World Cup (1998), European Championship (2000), Confederations Cup (2001, 2003)

8 Didier Deschamps

Career Span: 1985 – 2001

Didier Deschamps celebrates

Another Frenchman with over 100 caps for his country, Didier Deschamps’ playing career was littered with success, winning the Champions League twice (with Marseille and Juventus), as well as three Serie A titles and an FA Cup in England with France.

The current national team manager was named French Player of the Year 1996 and then captained his side to glory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, before later coaching his side to football’s biggest prize in 2018. Very few have contributed as much to French football as Deschamps.

Didier Deschamps: International Career
Games 103
Goals 4
Assists 13
Honours World Cup (1998), European Championship (2000)

7 Patrick Vieira

Career Span: 1993 – 2011

Patrick Vieira of France looking on

Patrick Vieira was a younger part of that World Cup-winning side of 2000 (grabbing an assist in the final), before winning the Euros two years later – picking up two assists, as he played in every game at the tournament. For club and country, central midfielders don’t get much more dominant.

Mixing grace with physicality, the Frenchman was the beating heart of Arsene Wenger’s glorious Arsenal team, captaining the side in their Invincibles era. Up there with the very best to ever play in the Premier League, Vieira also won honours at AC Milan, Inter Milan and Manchester City before retiring.

Patrick Vieira: International Career
Games 107
Goals 6
Assists 12
Honours World Cup (1998), European Championship (2000), Confederations Cup (2001)
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6 Lilian Thuram

Career Span: 1991 – 2008

Lilian Thuram celebrates with France

Only Hugo Lloris has more caps than Lilian Thuram, showing just how important the defender was for his national team. Able to operate as both a centre-back and as a right-back, he started and finished all but one game in France 1998, and was similarly important at the Euros two years later.

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Named the French Player of the Year 1997, Thuram won honours in Italy with Parma and then Juventus, while also enjoying a few seasons at Barcelona before retiring in 2008. He has also been ranked by fans as the 17th greatest defender in the history of football.

Lilian Thuram: International Career
Games 142
Goals 2
Assists 9
Honours World Cup (1998), European Championship (2000), Confederations Cup (2003)

5 Raymond Kopa

Career Span: 1959 – 1967

While not all modern fans will be aware of Raymond Kopa’s playing career, they will recognise his second name. This is because the Kopa Trophy is awarded to the best-performing under-21 player worldwide at the Ballon d’Or ceremony – with Jude Bellingham and Kylian Mbappe past winners.

The accolade was given to him, in part, as he is the only player to have won both the Young Player of the Tournament and Player of the Tournament awards at two different World Cups, doing so in 1954 and 1958 (as France came third) respectively. Kopa was also the winner of the 1958 Ballon d’Or, and won major honours in his home nation and Spain at Reims and Real Madrid.

Raymond Kopa: International Career
Games 45
Goals 18
Assists N/A
Honours None

4 Kylian Mbappe

Career Span: 2015 – Present

There is every chance that by the end of his career, Kylian Mbappe will go down as the greatest French footballer of all time. But at the age of 25 still, he will have to wait a little longer to be given that particular crown. He is also likely to finish up as his nation’s all-time top goalscorer, but currently sits third on the list behind Olivier Giroud and Thierry Henry.

Incredibly, five of Mbappe’s 46 goals have come in World Cup finals. He first netted twice as he powered his nation to glory at Russia 2018 before then scoring three times as France just fell short against Argentina in 2022. Numerous trophies have been accrued at Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, but he still is waiting to add either a Champions League or Ballon d’Or win to his collection.

International Career
Games 77
Goals 46
Assists 31
Honours FIFA World Cup (2018), Nations League (2020–21)

3 Michel Platini

Career Span: 1972 – 1987

Michel Platini celebrates winning Euro 84 with France

Seeing as Michel Platini, won the Ballon d’Or three times in a row, in 1983, 1984 and 1985, it’s not hard to see why he is regularly included in the conversation when the greatest footballers of all time are discussed. The only reason he doesn’t break into the top two is because he could not add a World Cup win to his European Championship triumph of 1984. But the French Player of the Year for 1976 and 1977 is still one of the finest to ever represent his nation.

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He scored in the final as he captained France to their first international trophy and was also, at one stage, their all-time top goalscorer. His most successful playing years were spent in Italy with Juventus but he also won trophies with Nancy and Saint-Etienne.

Michel Platini: International Career
Games 72
Goals 41
Assists 17
Honours European Championship (1984)

2 Thierry Henry

Career Span: 1994 – 2014

Thierry Henry was one of the most electric footballers of his generation. The Arsenal icon bagged goal after goal for the Gunners in their most successful era, making himself the greatest player the Premier League has ever seen. He ended his career with a fair few trophies in Spain at Barcelona but also won plenty with France as well.

Another forward who once held the all-time top goalscorer crown, Henry bagged 51 goals at international level, with three coming at the 1998 World Cup and three more coming at the Euros two years later. It takes a special talent to be named French Player of the Year once, but to win it five times takes the ex-Monaco youngster to another level.

Thierry Henry: International Career
Games 123
Goals 51
Assists 30
Honours World Cup (1998), European Championship (2000), Confederations Cup (2003)
Arsenal's Thierry Henry flanked by PSG's Kylian Mbappe and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford, two of the many players inspired the Frenchman

1 Zinedine Zidane

Career Span: 1989 – 2006

Zinedine Zidane

Has there ever been a more elegant footballer than Zinedine Zidane? A man for the big occasion – with a winning brace in the 1998 World Cup final, a panenka in the 2006 World Cup final, and a Man of the Match display (and goal) in the Champions League final – the midfielder didn’t have a bad career.

The 1998 Ballon d’Or winner was a joy to behold, delivering one of the greatest individual performances in World Cup history as he schooled Brazil in 2006. With over a century of appearances for France, and countless honours and achievements at Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid, very few could argue against Zidane going down as his nation’s finest-ever footballer. A true legend of the game.

Zinedine Zidane: International Career
Games 108
Goals 31
Assists
Honours World Cup (1998), European Championship (2000)