Through history, France has traditionally been one of the world’s colonial super-powers along the same lines of Great Britain, Russia and Spain – at its height France controlled almost 12.5 square kilometres of land or 5% of the world’s population.
Such global power was felt at home through wealth but it was perhaps French society that witnessed the biggest change as a direct result. It was only natural that foreign-born citizens would make the journey to mainland France to live and work and much of modern France’s multicultural make-up can be attributed to its former colonial prowess.
On the football field, things are no different with players of numerous ethnic backgrounds having represented France at international level. The first, of Senegalese descent, was Raoul Diagne when he became the first black player to play for the country in 1931.
A lot has happened in French football since its beginnings just after the turn of the twentieth century. Numerous foreign-born or second/third generation players have picked up full international caps, the country has been crowned World, European and Olympic Champions and has even been thrashed 17-1 by Denmark.
That extraordinary defeat came in 1908, just four years after the formation of the football federation. The game took place at the 1908 Olympics that were held in Britain and saw France play against the Scandinavian country who were fielding their first international team during the tournament.
It was an incredibly one-sided game with the Danes winning 17-1 with Sophus Nielsen scoring ten goals – a record that stood until 2001 when Australia’s Archie Thompson broke it with 13 goals in the 31-0 drubbing of American Samoa.
The team that day was made up of entirely ‘home-grown’ players, but fast-forward 90 years to the 1998 World Cup, France became world champions with an entirely different outlook. Of the winning team, many could have played for other nations, so we have complied a list of 20 players that could have done so…
20 Laurent Koscielny (Poland)
A relative unknown outside of France before joining Arsenal , Koscielny has gone on to become one of Arsenal’s most dependable players since joining the club from Lorient in 2010.
The strong and skillful centre-back broke into the French national team in 2011 after being awarded a call up in the February before finally making his debut in the 1-0 win over the United States in the November.
Koscielny went to both Euro 2012 and 2014 World Cup and has so far made 21 appearances for France. Had the player not cancelled a meeting with the Poland camp in 2010, things could have been very difficult for Koscielny, who quailed for the eastern Europeans through ancestry.
19 Eric Cantona (Italy/Spain)
An icon in the red half of Manchester, Cantona played 45 games for France scoring 20 goals between 1987 and 1995. The Frenchman received his first cap against West Germany in 1987 but went on to have a difficult international career that was disrupted by disciplinary problems and fall-outs.
Cantona could have chosen either Italy or Spain at international level through parentage but ultimately chose the country of his birth. The striker’s father was from Italy and his mother from Spain.
Perhaps he is best remembered for his time at Manchester United and is often thought of as the spark that ignited the team’s revival. After joining the club in 1992, he was instrumental in securing the title for the Old Trafford outfit – the first time the team had won the title since 1967.
18 Robert Pires (Portugal/Spain)
Although born in France, the pacey winger Robert Pires was eligible to play for Portugal through his father and Spain through his mother.
Pires started his career with Metz, but will be mainly remembered for his six-year stint with Arsenal under Arsene Wenger.
While in London, Pires picked up three FA Cups and two Premier League medals, while also going unbeaten during the entire 2003-04 Premier League season – the first team to do so in England in 115 years.
Pires was part of the ‘Golden Generation’ that won both the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 and appeared for the French national team a total of 79 times scoring 14 goals.
17 Bacary Sagna (Senegal)
Although born in Paris, current Manchester City right-back Bacary Sagna could have played for Senegal through ancestry before choosing to play for France. Sagna had expressed his intent of playing for the African nation but had to make a decision when he was called up to the French Under-21 squad while at Auxerre.
Sagna, who made his name at Arsenal. made his debut for the senior team in August 2007 in a 1-0 win over Slovakia. He is now just one cap away from a half-century for France and should pick it up when the team plays friendlies against Germany and England next week.
16 Thadée Cisowski (Poland)
Striker Thadée Cisowski played for France after the Second World War from 1951 to 1958.
Although the player was born in Poland, he played 13 times for France scoring 11 goals including five in one game against Belgium.
At club level, Cisowski played his entire career in France where he was known as a formidable striker. His Ligue 1 record was so good that he is still fourth on the league’s all-time scorers list with 206 goals in 286 games.
He ended his career as the Ligue 1 top-scorer on three occasions as well as being the Ligue 2 recipient once.
15 Samir Nasri (Algeria)
Like another famous creative midfielder named Zinedine Zidane, Samir Nasri was born and raised in the Southern French city of Marseille but had a chance to represent Algeria at international level.
Unlike Zidane whose parents are from Algeria, both of Nasri’s were born in France making him of third-generation Algerian decent after his grandparents hoped over the Mediterranean.
The Manchester City player represented France at every level from the Under-16s, so playing for the full team was simply natural progression.
At club level, Nasri has played for just three clubs, his home-town club of Marseille, Arsenal and his current club Manchester City after making the controversial switch north in 2011.
14 Pascal Vahirua (Tahiti)
Left-winger Pascal Vahirua played for the French national team a total of 22 times and was the first Polynesian to represent the team when he picked up his first cap against Kuwait in 1990.
During his playing career he mainly represented Auxurre and won the French Cup with the club in the 1993-94 season.
Being born and raised in Tahiti, he had the chance to play for the island nation like his cousin Marama Vahirua but was also eligible to play for France due to the island nation being a part of French Polynesia.
His cousin who had a successful career in France with Nantes, Nice and several other clubs decided to play for Tahiti after playing for the French at under-21 level and never receiving a full cap.
13 David Trezeguet (Argentina)
David Trezeguet had the chance to represent Argentina at the international level through his Argentinian father and even started his professional career in the country before choosing to represent France at international level.
The striker scored 34 goals in 71 international appearances for Les Bleus and was part of the team that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, alongside many other players who could have chosen a different international path.
The striker is probably best known for his goal-laden years in Turin with Juventus, but has also turned out for teams in Spain, UAE, Argentina and India during his 20-year career.
12 Youri Djorkaeff (Armenia)
Although born and raised in the French city of Lyon, Youri Djorkaeff could have played for Armenia through parentage as his grandparents are Armenian.
Youri wasn’t the first Djorkaeff to represent France – his father Jean captained the French and played in the 1966 World Cup picking up 48 caps in total.
The younger Djorkaeff was a creative midfielder/forward who spent the early part of his career in France before playing in Italy, Germany, England and finishing his career in the USA with the New York Red Bulls. He made almost 700 appearances during his career scoring over 220 goals.
Djorkaeff was part of the team that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 and made 82 appearances in total and ending his international career with 28 goals.
11 Patrice Evra (Senegal/Guinea/Cape Verde)
Having been born in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Evra was eligible to play for four different nations before opting for France after being raised in the country. Evra’s father who is Senegalese of Guinean descent was a diplomat who was stationed in Senegal when his son was born.
The defender’s mother is from Cape Verde, so he was also eligible to represent the tiny archipelago that is located in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa.
The current Juventus left-back started his professional career in Italy before stints at Nice and Monaco in France. Evra then transferred to Manchester United in a £5.5 million deal in 2006 alongside new team-mate Nemanja Vidic. Evra would go on to be United’s first-choice left-back for the next seven-and-a-half years before joining his current club in the summer of 2014.
Evra has had a turbulent international career after being indicated as one of the ring-leaders in a team revolt during the team’s disappointing 2010 World Cup campaign. The argument occurred after Nicolas Anelka was sent home from the tournament.
Despite that, Evra is still a regular in the French side and has picked up 68 caps to date.
10 Karim Benzema (Algeria)
Since scoring on his international debut against Austria in 2007, Karim Benezma has gone on to be the main focal point of the French team collecting 81 caps to date.
The powerful Real Madrid striker is of Algerian descent, so he had the choice of playing for both nations but chose to represent his country of birth. Benzema has played at every level from Under-17 for France and has been to one World Cup after being left out in 2010, allgedely due to his implications in a sex scandal.
At club level, Benzema is a feared striker who has picked up numerous trophies at Lyon and Real Madrid where he has played since July 2009.
9 Claude Makelele (Congo DR)
The former defensive midfielder is the son of former Congo DR player Andre-Joseph Makelele who represented the team at the 1974 World Cup when they were still Zaire.
Although born in the capital of Kinshasa, Claude Makelele joined his father in France when he was just four years old and started his career with Nantes in 1991. The midfielder went on to make over 800 professional appearances at club level in France, Spain and England before retiring in 2011.
Makelele made his first appearance in the blue of France when he played against Norway in 1995 and made a total of 71 appearances for the senior team without ever scoring.
8 Just Fontaine (Morocco/Spain)
To this day, Just Fontaine holds the record of the most goals scored in a single World Cup when he scored 13 in the 1958 edition that was held in Sweden. Although the player only played for the French national team a total of 21 times, he scored an incredible 30 goals at an average of 1.43 goals per game.
The striker was actually born to a Spanish mother in Marrakech, Morocco which was a French protectorate until 1956 when Morocco declared it’s full independence from France. Fontaine made his debut for France in 1953 against Luxembourg in an 8-0 thrashing which saw him bag a hat-track.
During his career, Fontaine only played for three teams, USM Casablanca in his native Morocco, Nice and Reims in France followed by stints as the coach of France, Morocco and several other teams including Paris Saint-Germain before retiring from the game.
7 Patrick Vieira (Senegal/Cape Verde)
Although Patrick Vieira didn’t set foot on mainland French soil until he was eight years old, the youngster was granted French nationality due to his grandfather serving in the French Army.
The Arsenal legend was born in Senegal and could have played for them or Cape Verde through his mother had the Senegalese spotted his talent earlier. Needless to say, it didn’t happen and Vieira went on to make 107 appearances for his adopted country making him the fifth most-capped player in the history of French football.
During his playing career, Vieira was known for his no-nonsense, combative style of midfield play and is the owner of a huge list of honors in England, Italy and for his national team.
6 Jean Tigana (Mali)
Jean Tigana was a midfielder that formed a partnership with Michel Platini, Luis Fernandez and Alain Giresse during the 1980s, which is considered one of the best international midfields of all-time. The foursome won the 1984 European Cup together in a tournament that Platini was named the best player.
Tigana was born in French Sudan (modern day Mali) which was a colony of France before the country declared independence in 1960, thus making the player eligible for the Europeans.
Tigana spent his entire playing career in France but has since gone on to coach in his adopted homeland, England, Turkey and more recently in China.
5 Marcel Desailly (Ghana)
Ex-national team captain Marcel Desailly was eligible to play for Ghana after being born in the west African country.
The defender come defensive midfielder began his career with Nantes, following his half-brother Seth Adonkor who was tragically killed in a car accident to the club.
From Nantes, Desailly went on to play for Marseille, AC Milan and Chelsea, winning many honors before ending his career in Qatar.
Desailly made his debut for the French national team in 1993 before being a part of the team that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 as part of ‘the Golden Generation’. When Didier Deschamps retired after the tournament, he was made captain and made a total of 116 appearances for his adopted country.
4 Lilian Thuram (Guadeloupe)
Lilian Thuram is the most capped player in the history of French football with 142 appearances for the senior international team. Before his retirement, the defender won both the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 as part of one of France’s ‘Golden Generations’.
Thuram spent the first 11 years of his life on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe before moving to France with his family. Although the player was eligible to represent his country of birth, it is not recognized by FIFA due to it being an overseas department of France and so he decided to play for his adopted homeland.
The defender started his professional career with Monaco before representing just three other teams during his illustrious career - Parma, Juventus and Barcelona. Thuram played over 680 professional club games and picked up numerous trophies before retiring from the game in 2008 after being diagnosed with a heart defect.
3 Thierry Henry (Guadeloupe/Martinique)
Like his World Cup winning team-mate Lillian Thuram, Arsenal legend Thierry Henry was eligible to play for Guadeloupe, albeit through parentage. By the same reasoning, Henry was also eligible for Martinique, but chose to represent his birth country of France.
Henry won both the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 and had a stellar club career winning over ten major honors with Monaco, Arsenal and Barcelona before his retirement on December 16th, 2014 after several years in America with New York Red Bulls.
For the French national team, Henry. who is considered one of the all-time greats. scored 51 goals in 123 games before announcing his international retirement after France’s dismal South African World Cup in 2010.
2 Michel Platini (Italy)
Current UEFA boss and FIFA presidency candidate Michel Platini is widely regarded as one of the best players of all-time and won the Ballon d’Or in three consecutive seasons from 1983-1985.
The technical playmaker scored 41 times in 72 appearances for the French national team and was a member of the 1984 European Cup triumph on home soil. But it could have been very different as Platini could have played for Italy.
Platini comes from a family with Italian ancestry – both of his parents have roots in the country. His grandfather was an Italian immigrant who settled in the country just after the end of the First World War.
1 Zinedine Zidane (Algeria)
Three-time FIFA World Player of the Year recipient Zinedine Zindane could have played for Algeria through parentage. Although the midfielder was born and raised in the Southern French city of Marseille, both of his parents were natives of Algeria but moved to France shortly before the outbreak of the Algerian War which lasted seven years.
Zindane’s first taste of professional football came with Cannes before going on to play for Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid in a trophy-laden career that lasted 17 years. Zidane won numerous trophies in that spell including a Champions League medal where he scored a wonder-goal in the final, La Liga, Serie A and the World and European Cups with France before retiring in 2006.
The midfielder’s debut for the French national team came against the Czech Republic in 1994 before going on to win a total of 108 caps. His last game in professional football was in the World Cup Final in 2006 versus Italy. Zidane was infamously sent-off after a vicious head-butt on Italian defender Marco Materazzi before the French went down 5-3 on penalties.