FRANCK Sauzée hasn't been back to Scotland since his unhappy departure from Hibs in 2002. The draw for the 2008 European Championships, however, has the popular Frenchman envisaging a return. Now 40, living in the beautiful Provence region of south-east France and starring on French television as a match analyst with Canal Plus, Sauzée reacted with glee to the news that Scotland would face France in their qualifying group for the 2008 tournament.
"It's a great draw as far as I'm concerned, because it brings together the two countries I care about the most," said Sauze, who scored nine goals from midfield in 39 games for France.
"With only two teams to go, though, it's a very tough group. There are four big teams in Italy, France, Scotland and Ukraine, and danger lurks around every corner. It's a very open group, I believe. You can drop points just about anywhere, and all the away games are going to prove perilous. We saw how France struggled to overcome the Faroe Isles in qualifying for this year's World Cup."
Sauze, who captained his country nine times, told me that the fixtures with Scotland would provide him with "great opportunities to catch up with some old friends".
"You know, I've never been back to Scotland, but I really must. The game France will have to play there might be the perfect occasion for me to return. I have such great memories of my time with Hibs - I absolutely loved it. I miss Scotland and I guess it's about time I went back."
Sauze has kept in touch with Scottish football, and in particular Alex McLeish, the current Rangers boss. It was McLeish who persuaded Sauze to move to Edinburgh, only to end up being replaced by the Frenchman at the Hibs helm. The men remain firm friends, and Sauze recalls with great clarity playing against McLeish in 1989, the last time the Scots beat the French.
"We lost 2-0 at Hampden Park - two goals from [Mo] Johnston if my memory serves me right," Sauze recalls, correctly. "Alex liked to wind me up about that game because Scotland ended up going to the 1990 World Cup while we stayed at home. I always remind him that we did them 3-0 back in Paris, so we beat them on aggregate!"
Sauze enjoyed great success at club level, wining the French championship three times with Marseille and the Champions League in 1993, as well as the French Cup with both Marseille and Monaco. He was less successful in the blue shirt of his country, being part of a national team that, in spite of a wealth of talent including Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona, failed to live up to expectations. After missing out on the 1990 World Cup, the French needed one point from home games with Israel and Bulgaria to make it to the 1994 event in the United States. The side managed by Gerard Houllier were famously beaten twice in a row at the Parc des Princes, leaving Sauze with painful memories.
"We had some great players but it just never worked out for us," said Sauze, for whom the last-minute defeat against the Emil Kostadinov-inspired Bulgarians proved to be his last international game. "Sometimes you just can't explain it, it's just football. I had many disappointments with the national team and after that Bulgaria game I decided to retire from international football. I was tired of it."
After the controversial end to his days at Hibs, Sauze went back to his native France and, quite deliberately, somewhat disappeared from circulation.
"I had a long playing career and I think I just really needed to breathe a bit, to take my time before deciding on what to do next," he said.
When Canal Plus came calling, Sauze decided it was time to return to the world of football. He quickly became the station's star pundit, and now also appears on a Monday-night football talk show in which his lucid judgment and visionary understanding of the game make him a popular and respected commentator.
Sauze still feels close to the players, and finds it difficult to criticise individuals.
"The current France team took a lot of stick in the qualifying period for the World Cup in Germany, but the most important thing is that they made it through," Sauze says.
France, though, will have to improve significantly if they are to go far this summer. And after the World Cup there will be no more Zinedine Zidane, no more Claude Makelele and no more Lilian Thuram.
"There will be a period of transition, and sometimes that can be tough," Sauze explained. "That's one advantage Scotland manager Walter Smith has today. He can already be thinking about the future, planning for 2008, whereas most of his counterparts are focused on this coming summer. And who knows how many of the coaches currently in charge will still be running their teams after the World Cup?"
Sauze sees other reasons for the Scots to be optimistic.
"There is a generation of young players coming through, and they are beginning to look the part," he said. "Guys like Derek Riordan and Garry O'Connor started their careers alongside me at Hibs and have great talent. They had an exemplary attitude and I'm glad to see people are talking more and more of them as international team-mates. They know each other's game really well and have qualities that are complementary.
"O'Connor is very strong, physical, while Riordan has great vivacity. Having these big international games against the likes of France and Italy coming up is great for them. It gives them a great stage, a chance to measure themselves against the best and also a chance to put themselves in the shop window. Everyone will be watching those games.
"Miller is fast, too. Scotland have got some really useful forwards who can pose a threat to any side. And any team that plays against Scotland knows they are going to have to work to get a result. I'm well-placed to know that."
When pushed to name two teams to come through from the qualifying group, Sauze doesn't even hesitate. "France and Scotland will qualify!" he asserts. "At least that's what my heart tells me. I would love it to turn out that way. Scottish football needs some results, needs some exploits to get everyone believing again. Let's hope it's just around the corner."