Like all the best rags-to-riches stories, this one has a twist. In fact, Franck Ribery's story dovetails nicely with that of the France national team: both were loved and supported after reaching the 2006 World Cup final, and both were vilified following the strike threat in protest of Nicolas Anelka's exclusion from the squad four years later. Neither has been completely forgiven, but Euro 2012 offers the perfect opportunity for redemption.
The timing should be perfect for Ribery. He is a Champions League finalist and fresh off his best season for Bayern Munich since his first in 2007-08. Along with Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, he is one of only two regular starters among Europe's top clubs (this season, at least) on the squad. "To beat France, you just have to stop two players getting the ball: Benzema and Ribery," Belgium coach Georges Leekens told the press after last November's 0-0 draw. "Just cut them off from their teammates."
He makes it sound so easy, but nothing ever is with Ribery. To realize just how far he has fallen in the eyes of the French public, you need to go back to early 2006, when his form at Marseille kick-started a campaign for him to be called up to the World Cup squad. He offered something different: intelligent runs, unique dribbling skills and a will to win that was seen as a sorely needed breath of fresh air.
France coach Raymond Domenech initially resisted, but later picked him as an uncapped player. Ribery was chosen ahead of Ludovic Giuly, Johan Micoud, Robert Pires and Anelka. His 'one of us' mythology increased when he celebrated his call-up with a kick-about in his back garden with his brother. "I think lots of people wanted to see me picked because I'm the kind of guy who never cheats," Ribery told
At the World Cup, Ribery enjoyed a breakthrough performance, linking up well with Zinedine Zidane (his idol) and Thierry Henry, as well as scoring his first France goal in the knockout win over Spain. That tournament was his high point in a France uniform.
Though Ribery played well in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, France as a whole played poorly, and the winger injured his ankle in the final group game against Italy. Thereafter, Ribery grew frustrated that he lost his preferred place on the left wing to Henry; he was often forced to play on the right.
In the season running up to the World Cup, things only worsened. Ribery was beset by injuries and scandal: He was one of four France players -- and the only one who was married -- cited in a police investigation into a prostitution ring. After call-girl Zahia Dahar confirmed a relationship, Ribery bore the brunt of public hostility. His example highlighted the increasing gulf between footballers and the public, and the scandal effectively ended his chances of replacing Henry as the French captain. Once France's poster-boy as football's 'man of the people', Ribery watched his reputation steadily deteriorate, something made worse when he was accused of bullying Yoann Gourcuff at the 2010 World Cup.
Ribery kept his silence after the World Cup, but last February, he began trying to rebuild his image with the French public. "There's been a split but I'm trying to fix it," he told
In the eyes of some, it might not be possible. "Ribery has psychological problems, he wants to become the favorite again as he needs to be loved in France like he is at Bayern," Vahid Hallilhodzic, a former Paris Saint-Germain manager now in charge of Algeria, told
When Blanc named his squad, he made a point of mentioning Ribery's importance to the team, and added: "He is more liberated for Bayern, because he puts so much pressure on himself when he plays for France that he loses the simple side of his game." In France's last two friendly matches, against Iceland (3-2) and Serbia (2-0), Ribery was outstanding. After three years without a goal, he scored in both games, and perhaps more importantly, looked consistently dangerous.
Perhaps Blanc is helping Ribery remove the pressure. Six years after he burst onto the scene at the World Cup, Ribery is ready to write the long-awaited redemption chapter of his story.