In-form playmaker Franck Ribéry believes his recent upturn has been triggered by his improved relationship with the French fans and says he is ready to start reproducing the sparkling performances that first made him a crowd favourite.
Few outside France had even heard of Ribéry before the 2006 FIFA World Cup, yet the skilful playmaker from Boulogne-sur-Mer became a household name after inspiring Les Bleus to the final in Berlin. His dynamic, off-the-cuff displays, combined with his spontaneous, fun-loving persona, were a breath of fresh air and his popularity soared.
Sadly for Ribéry, that status did not last. While he continued to flourish in club football after leaving Olympique de Marseille for FC Bayern München in 2007, he struggled to maintain the high standards he had set at international level and endured a disappointing 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Although he returned to the fold under Laurent Blanc, Ribéry was virtually unrecognisable from the youngster who had burst on to the scene with so much vitality. "I wasn't able to play with the same freedom and self-belief," the 29-year-old told UEFA.com. "I'd been criticised and it was difficult. When I started playing for France I was completely relaxed. I had a very good relationship with the fans; I was one of their favourites."
A subdued Ribéry received Blanc's full support and his form eventually returned. "I really wanted my comeback to be a success," he reflected. "The coach and other players were always there for me. Now I'm really pleased with the way I'm playing. It reminds of my early years [in the national team] and the way I play with Bayern."
After three years without an international goal, the floodgates have opened again. The winger scored in each of France's three UEFA EURO 2012 warm-up matches, ending the drought against Iceland in Valenciennes, a town close to his roots in northern France. The trigger was the rousing reception he received when he came on. "Feeling the fans' love is very important to me," he stressed. "I want to have a good relationship with them on and off the pitch. It's something I cherish and something I'd lost."
Ribéry was back to his scintillating best against Serbia and Estonia, taking players on and linking up with team-mates. The Bayern player has established a particularly strong rapport with striker Karim Benzema. "We get on very well," he said. "It's easy to play with Karim. I have a deep affection for him and I'm really pleased to see him proving his worth with Real Madrid and France. But it's not just him, we have a lot of great players who play for Europe's biggest clubs."
Ribéry is keen to emphasise the merits of the team, an attitude that reflects the togetherness in a side unbeaten in 21 matches. "The atmosphere's good," he said. "We've had so much fun together recently. The players all feel involved. We all want to participate and achieve something together. Our aim is to advance beyond the group stage."
To realise that goal, the two-time European champions will have to do something they have not managed in the last two major tournaments: win a game. Ribéry is convinced the current squad can restore France's position among Europe's leading nations.
"We're ready to start winning again," he insisted. "We have the desire back." Ribéry's role has changed since 2006. More mature, he describes himself as "one of the older players" who is there to "encourage the youngsters". That may be so but if he can repeat his performances from six years ago, France may well be up and running again.
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