Every team has a go-to guy. He’s the one with the skill, the experience and temperament to be a game changer. He’s the one his teammates look up to off the field and look for on it. For France, since the retirement of Zinedine Zidane, that man has been Franck Ribery.
The Bayern Munich midfielder, arguably the best winger of his generation, was planning a World Cup swan song in Brazil. His ambition has been cut short by a persistent back injury leaving Les Bleus scrambling — not only for balance but also a new leader on the field.
No player is bigger than the team but Ribery’s influence cannot be overstated. The stats only tell part of the story: 16 goals in 81 international appearances doesn’t do justice to his contribution. In many respects, Ribery is the heart and soul of the French team and in that regard is almost irreplaceable.
Ribery had it tough from the get-go. It is part of the reason he became so good at his job. The facial scars he carries to this day are the result of a serious car accident in which he was involved as a toddler. He has often remarked how the visual reminder gave him a strong character.
His sublime technical ability combined with that ingrained competitive spirit has made Ribery a genuine footballing superstar. He doesn’t have the flash of a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Neymar but the French maestro doesn’t care about appearing on magazine covers. He cares about winning silverware.
His personal trophy cabinet is almost full. Ribery has won virtually everything the game has to offer over the last decade with one, notable exception. Eight years ago he announced himself globally as part of the France team which got to the World Cup Final in Germany. Ribery’s 2006 silver medal is a constant reminder of how near and yet so far he was from becoming a World Champion.
Ribery's World Cup dream is over
Now the opportunity is gone for good. At 31, Ribery had already announced Brazil would be his last World Cup. His withdrawal leaves a gaping hole in the French team and its mentality and the tournament will be poorer for his absence.
France coach Didier Deschamps, like Ribery, was a talisman in his playing days. He cannot have Ribery but he must have a new leader on the park. That responsibility is about to pass to the next generation in the form of Paul Pogba.
The 21-year-old Juventus midfielder has only a handful of international caps to his name. But the tall, powerful youngster has all the tools to drive Les Bleus forward. Whether Pogba has the maturity to embrace the role remains to be seen, but if he’s good enough, he’s old enough.