Welcome to a brand-new feature at Football News, titled “PRESS BOX”. In this series of interviews, some of football’s most renowned experts have their say on the ongoings in the French football world, looking in from the outside.
After the newly appointed Chief Football Writer at The Times newspaper Henry Winter kicked off the series two weeks ago, Gianluca Di Marzio’s leading English writer David Amoyal took up up the mantle in an Italian-themed PRESS BOX last week.
This week Spanish football expert and former Revista de la Liga regular Graham Hunter talks Benzema, Griezmann, slamming PSG’s hopes of winning the Champions League and much more.
GFFN: Is there a particular style of football that you would characterise as “French”? If so, can you describe it to us?
Graham Hunter: First of all I would not describe myself as any kind of authority on French football. I was a huge fan of French players and of some of the Ligue 1 clubs in the 1970’s and 1980’s and since then I have met many of the key players, been to many of the big clubs and reported from France 98. But life has taken me in other directions.
However, in my opinion, there is no single, identifiable “French” football style. What would, almost always, surprise me is if a French footballer of any moderate level did not have a good technical repertoire. I would argue that they tend to be more complete in skills, more tactically aware, than, for example, your equivalent English footballer.
GFFN: Karim Benzema is certainly one of, if not the biggest of French football stars playing in Spain at the moment. What has your reaction been to the Mathieu Valbuena sextape affair scandal that the Real Madrid man has got himself involved in?
Graham Hunter: My reaction. Hmm. Well… sextape. The phrase is unedifying in any context other than the utterly private and I am a bit sad that in the football world we even need to know about it, let alone think about its repercussions. Valbuena is a football that I have always enjoyed watching. And would have hated playing against. His story arc has some similarity with Waddle, Vardy, Alan Pardew. Under-appreciated for a long time initially.
As for Benzema – I have met and spoken to him in my career. Liked him. Absolutely love watching him play. I think he is deeply underrated in world terms. If he committed a deliberate act to help the blackmailers then let the law take its course. If he was just dopey and has made an error then… Who does not make mistakes?
Is Benzema fully mature? I would say no. His part in the underage prostitute story, his driving escapades in Madrid prove that. Might he be the difference between France winning next summer or not doing so… Yes he might well. I would first prefer for justice to be done. But, with that stated, I would love to see Les Bleus at full strength in their own Euros and see what happens as a result.
GFFN: Would you say that the Spanish media’s view in general has changed of Karim Benzema as a result of this scandal?
Graham Hunter: To an extent. He is accused of a pretty serious offence. But changed completely… for the reasons stated in answer three I’d say not. No.
GFFN: In 2015, Ligue 1 clubs received 386m Euros in transfer fees, more than any other European league. Will such a selling culture prevent Ligue 1 from ever becoming a dominant European league?
Graham Hunter: I am not sure that is true to the extent that you suggest. What would enable Ligue 1 to become a dominant league would be good talent development, youth coaching, better pitches, higher TV audiences around the world and thus better revenue, better use of France’s golden 1998 generation to advocate on behalf of Ligue 1 and to share their knowledge, better signing policies…
No single factor, including selling well, will prevent French football from advancing. But if the football gets several wrong then progress will be stunted for sure.
GFFN: Has Antoine Griezmann outperformed Karim Benzema over the course of 2015?
Graham Hunter: I am not a great fan of the comparison. Griezmann is exceptional, fun to watch, younger, quicker and in a team which is going through fewer troughs. His 2015 has patently been his best ever season. His lesson from having been excluded by France after the Paris nightclub nonsense in between the Norway games seems learned and Simeone is a terrific man manager as well as player manager.
But Benzema has been wonderful this year, or at least often enough from me to love watching him too. Look at how much Ronaldo struggled without him when Karim was out injured. Sensational footballer.
GFFN: Can Raphael Varane become Real Madrid’s greatest ever central defender?
Graham Hunter: I would doubt it. If he surpasses players like Stielike, Hierro or Cannavaro I would be pleasantly surprised. Very good yes. Very good indeed. I like lots about him. But he has so many areas in his game to improve and it is time, indeed it is nearly overdue, for him to show leadership as well as great pace and athleticism. I think these will come. I am no critic of him. I am delighted that he is in La Liga and not the Premier League. But “Greatest Ever” – he has got a long way to go.
GFFN: Can PSG win the Champions League this season?
Graham Hunter: “Can” is a big word. I suppose you can deconstruct it by saying “Could they reach the final?”… Stranger things have happened. “Then if they did reach it could they win it?” Football teaches you “yes”. But do I think that PSG will win the Champions League this year… No, I don’t. In fact I would be prepared to say that I will bet you a beer that they will not. Not good enough. Not tested enough at home. Blanc not good enough.
GFFN: In France, the belief is that Les Bleus have the best chance of winning a major trophy at EURO 2016, perhaps even since the beginning of the 21st century. Would you concur with that view? And can they do it without Karim Benzema?
Graham Hunter: Yes. I am a Deschamps fan. I like sufficient numbers of the talents in the squad, the France players are now tending to win trophies regularly with their clubs. The home advantage is huge, even when measured against pressure and nerves. I was at France 0-0 (1-0) Paraguay in 1998 and saw the stifling pressure and nerves. And that was a better France squad and a better France XI than this.
But still, I would expect that France will get a “kick” from being hosts. So, potential winners: Yes. But I see Spain as equally strong candidates if all their key players are fit and in form.
GFFN: Which current French footballer would you most like to see come to Spain, an individual who you think would be very well suited to La Liga?
Graham Hunter: I like watching Pogba play. I admire Verratti who is Italian I know but he has been sequestered by PSG. Rabiot looks fantastic to me when I see him. Maxwell Cornet might well have as much talent as Martial even if he is not considered to be at the same level yet. How did Real Madrid and Barcelona let Bayern Munich sneak in ahead to pinch Kingsley Coman? A royal talent and one that I would love to watch weekly?
There will be many more but my time is spent watching so much football other than Ligue 1 I am afraid.
GFFN: Who is the most promising French football talent at the moment, and is he better than the most promising Spanish football talent that you can think of right now?
Graham Hunter: Rabiot would do it for me. So would Coman. And there has to be something about Alban Lafont to be debuting so young, no? I watched Lyon’s youth team recently and these guys stood out: Yoan Martelat, Gaëtan Perrin and Romain Del Castillo. Again, I am not a massive fan of that one vs one comparison thing but I will say this.
The degree to which Spain churns out fantastic, technically gifted, visionary, dedicated young footballers is just admirable. I am going to avoid the temptation of saying that there is more of them emerging in Spain than in France because I do not know the French youth scene sufficiently.