[PORTRAITS] A month after its embarrassing exit from the World Cup, France is on the verge of winning in international trophy. Its U-19s have advanced to
Friday's final of the European Championship in their category against Spain with an exciting team led by Gael Kakuta and Antoine Griezmann, two players who abandoned French soccer at young age and moved abroad.
Kakuta is considered the best young French player to come along in many years.
His move to English club Chelsea from Lens was the subject of an international dispute that ended up with the young striker being fined $1 million and suspended for four months and Chelsea temporarily being banned from signing any new players.
(Chelsea was later found to have been within its rights to have signed Kakuta, whose aspirant contract -- an agreement to agree -- was not binding.)
Chelsea star John Obi Mikel says Kakuta, born in Lille to Congolese parents, is Chelsea's most skillful player.
"At his age," adds Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, "I've never seen a player with his talent. He's not very powerful but technically, he's ready."
Unfortunately, Kakuta has gotten little playing time on the first team behind such strikers as Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Salomon Kalou.
Francis Smerecki, the French U-19 coach, wonders whether it's time for Kakuta to move back to France.
"Gael was asked some questions," he said. "The competition is very strong. He's got to watch out."
Playing time isn't a problem for Griezmann, who has already played 39 games and scored six goals for Spanish club Real Sociedad and helped it win promotion back to the First Division.
Earning the respect of French youth national team coaches was something else. It wasn't until this spring that he made his debut for France.
His development underscores the problem in French soccer, where clubs place a heavy emphasis on athleticism.
The 5-foot-8 Griezmann was overlooked by most French clubs, so the Basque club jumped in and enrolled him at the age of 13 in its youth school. He commuted each day from Bayonne on the French side to San Sebastien, where Real Sociedad is located.
Even in Spain, where a heavy emphasis is placed on skill, the left-footed Griezmann stood out. Scouts from Arsenal and Manchester United regularly showed up at his Second Division games to watch the young Frenchman who models himself after Spanish World Cup player David Silva, who recently joined Manchester United.
He won't leave cheaply. Real Sociedad put a $40 million transfer clause in Griezmann's contract when he signed a five-year contract this year.