Former France star Emmanuel Petit has backed Karim Benzema's return to the national team to boost not only Didier Deschamps' squad, but the nation of France as a whole ahead of Euro 2020.
Benzema made his first international appearance in over five and a half years when he started France's first warmup game against Wales earlier this month, and could displace Olivier Giroud as Les Blues' number nine for their first game of the tournament on Tuesday, depending on his fitness.
Speaking at the launch of the Paddy Park at Flat Iron Square, London, Petit told 90min: "We’ve been asking for his return for years now. He’s 33 years old, he doesn’t have much time to wait anymore. I’m pretty sure that after five or six years in purgatory, it’s time for him to come back. He did the way back with Didier Deschamps and Didier Deschamps did the same for him, and I think that was for the best interests of the national team, for the country and for Karim Benzema as well.
"When I saw his desire and his communication as soon as he went into Clairefontaine...I can’t remember the last time I saw Benzema smiling in front of a camera, saying he was proud to return to the national team. This is the kind of message we want to hear in France, because there are so many troubles involving sports in France.
"If you look at the TV, you’ll often hear that we’re not far from a civil war, so – there is a huge majority of people, French or not French, who don’t want that. The overall majority of French people want Benzema back, maybe for this reason. For me, the main reason is because he has improved a lot as a player."
That said, World Cup and Euro 2000 winner Petit insisted that he won't mind too much if Deschamps' side don't lift the trophy on 11th July, insisting that the 'emotion' of the game matters to him more than anything else – with a cheeky dig at Manchester United's Europa League final fans in Gdansk thrown in for good measure.
"My first choice is France, but if it’s France or England, bring the emotion. The reason I love football is because it brings pure emotions. This is the only thing I want from football every single game. It doesn’t matter if you play for the opponent, just bring me emotion. It’s life. I want to shout, scream, cry, get emotions. If the French can bring me that, fair enough. If they can win the title and bring emotion, I will be the first fan behind them.
"I went to Poland to watch the Manchester United game against Villarreal. Thank god the Spanish were there because oh my goodness, what happened to the Manchester United fans? They were so quiet! I was thinking to myself ‘after a year away, now a cup final, you’ve done two flights to get here, you pay so much money for a ticket and a hotel, just to sit like that in the ground and be quiet all night?’
"It’s a pity. We need the fans back. The players need the fans. They miss the fans. I was very annoyed after the game. I don’t understand people who complain about staying at home, they don’t want to follow the rules, and then when you’re back, you do this? Just stay home. Stay on the sofa."
"I guess there are some similarities with [me and] N’Golo Kante..."- Emmanuel Petit
Deschamps and co can become the second French side to win the World Cup/Euros double after Petit's 98/2000 teams, one generation removed from the side at the turn of the century which Deschamps himself captained.
Asked to pick his dream XI from a combination of those teams, Petit admitted that he had a hard time comparing them – before picking a team without current captain Hugo Lloris and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry.
"It’s a hard one because it’s not the same football...everything has changed so much. If you ask me, maybe I would change the whole defence [into the 2000 side] and I would probably put Zinedine Zidane into the midfield. For the rest, I think [the current team] are better up front, and I’m sure in the midfield as well. I won’t put myself in the team, I don’t like the spotlight all the time. I guess there are some similarities with N’Golo Kante on that front."
Emmanuel Petit was speaking at the launch of the Paddy Parks, the ultimate fan viewing experience for all EURO 2020 games. Held at Flat Iron Square and Riverside Newcastle, tickets will sell out fast –visit www.paddyparkfanzones.com to book your spot.