France will head to this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil buoyed by their heroic 3-2 aggregate play-off triumph over Ukraine and the subsequent good form created by that impressive comeback.
Key to Les Bleus’ success in South America will be the 4-3-3 system recently implemented by coach Didier Deschamps, and the controversy-free squad that he has tried to construct. Also integral to French hopes though will be the form of Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema.
Since Zinedine Zidane’s retirement in 2006, Ribery has been the player expected to step up and take over as the team’s creator. Yet, at the 2008 and 2012 UEFA European Championships and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, he failed to do that.
Benzema was also expected to step up and fill the void not only left by Zidane, but the likes of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet too. However, the 26-year-old has yet to really make himself indispensable to France in the same way that he has at Real Madrid.
At 31 years old, Ribery is the most experienced member of this French World Cup squad, with 10 tournament appearances to his name.
Benzema, although five years younger than his teammate, is now the second most capped player in the current squad with 65 caps, yet this will be his first World Cup. And, despite featuring at both Euro 2008 and 2012, he is still chasing his first goal at a major international tournament.
Both have been accused in the past of not being the same players for Les Bleus as they are for their clubs. The same has also been said of Samir Nasri, and Deschamps hinted as much when he revealed his reasons for leaving the Manchester City man out of this summer’s squad per ESPN FC’s Ian Holyman.
As was the case in Poland and Ukraine back in France’s forgettable Euro 2012 campaign, Ribery and Benzema are both expected to be the team’s main protagonists in Brazil. Should they once again fail to live up to their reputations once again this summer, both could be forced to end their international careers.
Ribery’s time with France may already be up following this tournament, after he revealed to RTL Radio (h/t the Guardian) earlier this week that Brazil will be his last World Cup. Although he is expected to remain available for selection for Euro 2016 on home soil, failure to become the talisman of this team in South America may spell the end for Ribery in Bleu.
Benzema, though, could realistically continue at international level for another five or six years at least. That would include two European Championships and one World Cup. However, if the French No. 9 fails to demonstrate his true ability to Deschamps when it matters most in Brazil, why should he be retained for 2016?
With the likes of Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann emerging at international level and Sevilla’s Kevin Gameiro now starting to show the sort of form that got him into the French national team setup in the first place, there are likely to be serious challengers for both players' roles ahead of 2016.
Therefore, both must show why they are worthy of being considered as France’s two main men when Les Bleus take to the field in Brazil this summer.
Perform to the best of their abilities and France could make a run to the latter stages of the tournament and really give Deschamps something to build on in two years’ time. Fail to reproduce their club form once again, though, and the French risk another embarrassing group stage exit.
Les Bleus' World Cup record fluctuates and great successes tend to follow great failures. France’s one and only World Cup title in 1998 was followed by an abysmal 2002 campaign, which was atoned for by reaching the 2006 final. However, four years later, the team once again failed to advance past their group in their ill-fated 2010 South African sojourn.
If recent history is anything to go by, France are due an impressive showing in Brazil and key to that will be Ribery and Benzema’s performances. Their international futures depend on it.