Few fans of the beautiful game woke up today, the morning after watching Argentine legend Lionel Messi finally lift the ever-elusive World Cup win he so desperately deserved, and felt anything other than pure satisfaction.
I personally know a few French men and women who, despite the heartbreak, have found it hard to not tip their hats and pay homage to a player that will now go down in history for many as the greatest footballer of all time.
But in that same light, when running the rule over the French national team and where they go from here after so nearly becoming just the third nation to ever successfully defend their World Cup crown, no one is concerned. Nor should they be.
As mentioned by ESPN’s Julien Laurens and others, the depth of talent that Les Bleus can call upon in the coming years - both at Euro 2024 and the 2026 World Cup - is nothing short of phenomenal. But perhaps most impressive is the reality that the vast majority of that talent will just be hitting their stride four years from now and at the peak of their powers, while some will only just be on the cusp of their prime years.
Of course, there is Kylian Mbappé; this winter’s golden boot winner. With eight goals in Qatar and the fact that he has already, by the age of 23, hit 12 goals on football’s biggest stage in just two tournament appearances, five of which have come against Argentina.
That total has seen him draw level with Pelé while passing some great names of yesteryear. Names like Kocsis, Klinsmann, Rahn, Lato, Ademir, and Eusébio. And the reality that Mbappé is all but guaranteed to become the World Cup’s all-time leading goalscorer is sure to dominate headlines in the coming years, but it should not take away from the impressive list of current and future Gallic talismen to come.
And in that pool of talent is a number of long-term options in the number 9 role that France can hopefully rely on to reach a level of talent and influence akin to that of the now-retired Karim Benzema and aging Olivier Giroud (36) in recent years while drawing on the spirit of others that have come before in the vein of Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Just Fontaine, and Jean-Pierre Papin.
Here are five such players that could be the next to lead the line in the coming years.
Randal Kolo Muani (24); Eintracht Frankfurt
The easiest call for France to make right now would be to keep faith in 24-year-old Eintracht Frankfurt striker Randal Kolo Muani. Currently enjoying a fantastic season in the Bundesliga as well as in his performances in Europe, Kolo Muani received an unexpected call-up into the France squad due to injuries suffered in the runup to the tournament in Qatar, and though he did not crack into Didier Deschamps’ preferred XI, his performances off the bench were influential each time.
His 79th-minute goal in the semi-finals against Morocco sealed France’s passage to the final just when the Atlas Lions were desperately looking to draw level in the final stages, while his performance against Argentina in the final proved how multi-faceted he was regarding his player profile after winning more duels than any other player, which was also the most in the World Cup final since Gennaro Gattuso in 2006. Though some have suggested his late chance which was brilliantly saved by Emiliano Martínez is a reason France ultimately was denied consecutive World Cup titles, the Bondy-born forward is being tipped for big things in the immediate future.
Arnaut Kalimuendo (20); Stade Rennais
Like many that have come through the vaunted youth setup at Paris Saint-Germain, Paris-born Arnaut Kalimuendo has begun to plant roots away from the Parc des Princes over the last few seasons after first impressing during a two-year loan spell with Racing Club de Lens after scoring 19 goals during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons respectively.
Now with Stade Rennais, Kalimuendo has featured fifteen times across all competitions under Bruno Génésio. Still just 20, there is time for him to find a measure of consistency that maybe is still lacking overall, but his ruthlessness in the box that has already become a highlight of his overall profile is certainly something to keep an eye on moving forward. It can be questioned why PSG moved for Hugo Ekitike in the summer rather than just giving a chance to their own youth product, but Kalimuendo will certainly stand to benefit from minutes he simply would not have received in the French capital.
Hugo Ekitike (20); Paris Saint-Germain
Speaking of Ekitike, Stade de Reims turned the clock back to days gone by when they eventually rolled out the city native off their youth conveyor belt last season when he scored 10 goals in Ligue 1 under the guidance of former manager Óscar García after first spending a year with Danish outfit Vejle Boldklub in the NordicBet Liga.
Quite a few clubs were on the trail of Ekitike in the summer, including Newcastle United, before the 20-year-old opted to move to the city of lights rather than continue being a trusted first-choice option at Stade Auguste-Delaune. Though the prospect of training with, and directly receiving guidance from, the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappé would be very difficult to turn down, Ekitike may find his future - and national team prospects - better served by being elsewhere, at least in the short term. Though he has appeared twelve times for PSG this season, he has logged less than 300 minutes while scoring one goal. He cuts the shape of a player that can still bloom, however, and has shown himself capable of being in a possession-based system while also being adept in the press and confident when on the ball. Remains one to look out for.
Sepe Elye Wahi (19); Montpellier HSC
An unknown name to most that are not clued in to the French footballing world on a deeper level, 19-year-old Sepe Elye Wahi does not ply his trade for a fashionable club in former Ligue 1 champions Montpellier HSC but has nevertheless come on strong in his young career. Currently in his third season with La Paillade, Wahi was confirmed as the club’s second-youngest goalscorer in history when he found the back of the net against AS Monaco in January 2021.
Versatile and capable of playing anywhere across the front three, his 10 league goals last season were certainly credible and he entered the extended international break this winter on 6 goals in 14 league appearances, good enough to be the club’s top goalscorer. Unfortunately for Wahi, he has not come without controversy, however, after being accused of assaulting a woman at a nightclub back in October of 2021. Though his potential on a football pitch after being credited with 89 goals when in SM Caen’s youth set-up, off-pitch controversy can, unfortunately, railroad his international career before it has truly begun.
Mathys Tel (17); Bayern Munich
Already making history at Bundesliga juggernaut Bayern Munich, 17-year-old Mathys Tel did not go the same route as many Paris-born footballers and develop at PSG. Instead, he received much of his education with Paris FC and other smaller youth outfits before finally being snapped up by Stade Rennais in 2020 where he would go through two more years at the academy level while also making his debut for the senior team last season in Ligue 1.
Though he only featured on seven occasions, his potential is arguably the most notable of any player listed here, and has already shone at youth level for France with 13 goals across 19 combined appearances for the U17, U17, and U19 sides. This promoted Bayern to splash nearly €30m on the youngster, who has since gone on to become the club’s youngest-ever goalscorer in both the Bundesliga as well as the DFB-Pokal. At current, Tel has found the back of the net four times in 12 overall appearances under Julian Nagelsmann and though the Rekordmeister are regularly linked with possible business for another center-forward, the future for both Bayern, and France, could well be linked to this young man.