July 10, 2016 — Stade de France, Paris.
The French players are lying across the pitch, tears streaming down their faces as Portuguese players lift the “Henri Delaunay Trophy” after an extra time winner from a journeyman striker. Didier Deschamps surveys the scene, where 18 years earlier he captained France to their greatest ever triumph, the 1998 World Cup. In Euro 2016, Deschamps had been successful in blending an ageing side with the promising young players that France were developing, leading them to their first tournament final since the 2006 World Cup. Now two years on, Deschamps again leads France into a major tournament. However, this time, the onus will be on the 1998 World Cup-winning captain bringing home silverware after the heartbreak of Paris.
For some reason, I’ve always supported France. It probably has something to do with the large contingent of Arsenal players that once dominated the French team at the turn of the millennium. The likes of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Emmanuel Petit and Sylvain Wiltord. And, who could forget, Thierry Henry. Thierry has since become just another pundit to many people and to the people of Ireland he is still vilified because of that handball (I forgive him by the way). But in his pomp, there really was no one better. While many of my friends were off buying Brazil jerseys because of their admiration for the likes of Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, I went off and bought myself a France jersey. Ever since then my admiration for the French national side has remained, even during the dark years from 2008 to 2012. I still hoped they could make a run through a tournament and a new French dynasty would be born. That time, I believe, is now.
Strength in depth
While Deschamps had the perfect blend of experience and youth in his Euro 2016 squad, this time around he will have only five players over the age of 30 in his final 23 man squad. But although France may lack experience, they will have some of the most exciting young players in world football at their disposal, the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé and Thomas Lemar. And it’s not just their attacking talent. Equally noteworthy is the fact that their defence has been overhauled since Euro 2016. While captain Hugo Lloris remains the No. 1, the back four has changed completely, with Samuel Umtiti the only player who started against Portugal two years ago. The likes of Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra have retired, while Laurent Koscielny misses out due to injury. In their place is the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Raphael Varane, Djibril Sidibe and Lucas Hernandez.
Next is France’s exceptional midfield, where they have the ultimate workhorse in N’Golo Kante; Paul Pogba, who is transformed when away from Jose Mourinho; and Blaise Matuidi, the tough-takling midfield general reminiscent of his current manager. Upfront they have the youth of the previously mentioned Mbappe, Lemar and Dembélé; along with the experienced Oliver Giroud and the promising Nabil Fekir; as well as the game-changer for France, and possibly the best pure striker going to Russia this summer, Antoine Griezmann, who is rightly expected to be one of the players of the tournament.
With so much quality spread throughout the squad, Deschamps has been left with a problem of having to leave quality players at home. Many pundits have noted that Deschamps has effectively left a World Cup winning team out of the final squad, but no one is criticizing the Frenchman for doing so. Whilst the likes of Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette, Moussa Sissoko, Kingsley Coman, Adrien Rabiot, and Aymeric Laporte can count themselves very unlucky to miss out on a place on the plane, pundits are all in agreement that the French squad is perhaps the strongest team making their way to the Russian motherland this summer.
While pure class often triumphs in the World Cup (see: Brazil 1970 and Argentina 1986), a kind draw can do a lot to build a team’s momentum heading into the knockout stages of the tournament. France have been given a kind group stage draw with their most stern test expected to come against Denmark in their final group game on June 26th. Before that, France will face off against Australia in their first game on June 16th followed by their second game against Peru on June 21st. While Denmark do pose a threat to France due largely to the class of Christian Eriksen, Australia and Peru hold no such threat and should be easily brushed aside.
Once France guide their way to the top of Group C they will face off with the runners-up of Group D which contains the likes of Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. Calling Group D “the group of death” may be slightly premature, but it is nonetheless expected that Argentina will qualify top of the group and Iceland and Croatia will battle it out for second place. While both sides possess quality players, they will be no match for a French team that will just be beginning to get warmed up.
A potential showdown with the likes of Spain or Uruguay could be on the cards in the quarter-finals. Or, better still, a tantalising rematch with old rivals, Portugal, would be even more intriguing for France, giving them a chance to right the wrongs of that Paris night two years ago. Of course, momentum will be key, but if France and particularly Griezmann can find their shooting boots, Portugal should be easily disposed of — and from there, well anything could happen.
For many years, France were at the top table when it came to international football, but over the last decade they have slipped, seeing their place come under threat at times. As France prepare to take off for Russia in a few weeks time, they will want to prove two things to not just themselves but to football fans around the world.
- They can successfully banish the demons of losing the Euro 2016 final in their own stadium; something that many fans think still haunts them.
- At last they show the world that all these young players who have bags and bags of potential are able to perform as a unit and that once again France deserve to be not just at that top table of international football teams but at the head of the table and if they do then I see no team stopping them in Russia this summer.
Now, where’s my jersey.