Éternels. That is how the France side that won the 2018 World Cup is described on the front of Monday’s L’Equipe, and it is true.
Every single member of that squad has a tag that will stay with them forever now. World Cup winner Olivier Giroud will meet World Cup winner Paul Pogba in the Premier League, while World Cup winner Hugo Lloris watches the game worried about his Tottenham Hotspur side.
Once every four years
They will forever be World Cup winners – all of them. Football bestows a lot of titles upon its players, and there are a lot of claims to be made, but the ones that come from the World Cup are special. Not only do they represent the whole world in a way that nothing else in the game really does, but they come around only once every four years.
Croatia, for their part, have a squad that will live forever, too. Just as children in Paris, Lyon and Marseille have heroes to last a generation now, so too do those in Osijek, Split and Zagreb. Luca Modric and his side will hurt now, and hurt for a long time, but they will be that Croatia side for so long as the nation is without a major tournament victory, which may never happen.
The names of Les Bleus are indelibly inked into the history books, then. International football is strange that way. This French side had not played together a huge amount before the tournament – Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard had a total of eleven caps between them – but they will be forever intertwined now.
In 2030, this will be the France of Lloris, Hernandez, Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Kante, Matuidi, Pogba, Griezmann, Mbappe and Giroud. That’s who it will be. They are suspended in time as that XI, perfect. They might only have had moments when they looked like the best team in the world – indeed, you could argue that they’re not – but they won the World Cup, and that’s what counts.
They are perfect now. That is the nature of these things. Today, France are perfect, the squad is perfect, the players are perfect, even Didier Deschamps is perfect.
Tomorrow, maybe that soon, the shine will start to wear off the squad. They have – and so few teams get it – that one moment – they have that, but it will disappear, and quickly.
One of them will be injured, one will retire, one will do something else, another will drift away. They will always be inexorably linked together, those players, but it will be very difficult for any one of them to experience a higher point in their career than they did on Sunday evening; it is almost certain to be the defining point in their lives. When Samuel Umtiti is interviewed at the age of 64, he will almost certainly still be captioned “World Cup Winner Samuel Umtiti”.
For illustration’s sake, take a look back at the 1998 France side that won in Paris; they represent a different moment in time. Some retained their high level – Zidane, Deschamps – others rather faded away for various reasons. Stephane Guivarc’h was the only real option to fill his role. Alain Boghossian left the game through injury. This current side will experience the same.
If you’re familiar with the song ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, written by Eric Bogle but most famously performed (to my ears, any road) by the Pogues, you’ll be aware quite how a powerful piece of poetry it is.
The song tells the tale of an Australian soldier who is badly injured at Gallipoli and then shipped home, feeling physically broken and eventually betrayed by his country – but more importantly, he is part of a brotherhood who have been through the same thing, bound together through collective experience, which is something that all World Cup winning sides have. Sport is not war, of course, but the two are not unusual bedfellows.
“But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday no one will march there at all”
That verse is the fate of the French team that won the 2018 World Cup. Its something that’s been playing on my mind a lot recently, since the loss of Ray Wilson, England’s left-back in 1966. That side is beginning to diminish in number now; along with Ray Wilson, Bobby Moore and Alan Ball have both left us, four the squad who didn’t play in the final itself have also passed on; John Connelly, Ron Springett, Jimmy Armfield and Gerry Byrne. Their reunions will see fewer and fewer attendees as time goes on and, eventually, there will be none left.
Suspended in time
The passage of time is not new, nor is it unexpected, but in crowning a new World Champion, we do two things to them. The first is to preserve them forever, that side at that moment. Whatever those players go on to do in the rest of their careers, and the rest of their lives, they will always be those players from Sunday’s final. They will never escape it.
Because that moment is so potent, it has that other knock-on effect. They will always be after it. The great thing has already happened and is consigned to the past. All that remains is the passage of time and inevitable decay. It cannot and will not be avoided.
Perhaps this is a miserable way of looking at something that is the greatest moment in a number of people’s lives, in fact, almost certainly it is. Yet that doesn’t make it any less true.
Just as the Brazil team of 1958 were suspended in time, the 1958 Pele different to the 1962 Pele and different again to the Pele of 1970 – the same man, but a different player – France will never be the same team again.
Even if the same XI start a game as started against Croatia, they will be different, they are changed, they are something new.
The past is gone, the future is coming, and the World Cup Winners are no more. Or, as the Romans would have it, ‘Gallia mortuus est, vivat Gallia!’