To reflect on France’s impressive start to this World Cup, it is worth remembering just how bad things got for Les Bleus at the same tournament four years ago.
Bad enough that the players—a few of whom are still in the squad this time around—even refused to train at one point, after forward Nicolas Anelka was expelled from the squad for abusing coach Raymond Domenech at half-time during the previous group game against Mexico.
By all accounts, Anelka had told Domenech to “go f--k yourself, you son of a whore,” but the players nevertheless insisted on releasing a statement airing their grievances about his treatment—and it was left to Domenech, of all people, to read it out to the press.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a few days later France lost to hosts South Africa in their final group game, sending the circus off to join Anelka on holiday at the earliest opportunity.
After reaching the final in 2006, this was a seismic fall from grace. The recriminations were many and vast. Team officials resigned, official inquests were held, players were threatened with suspensions. Domenech even proposed to his girlfriend live on French television (excruciatingly, he was turned down).
Lilian Thuram—a World Cup winner with France in 1998—was among those who demanded Patrice Evra, the squad’s captain, be banned for life for his part in the fiasco, as he lectured on leadership and responsibility. “Walking round with books on slavery in glasses and a hat does not turn you into Malcolm X,” Evra retorted angrily as French football split down numerous fault lines.
Evra was indeed banned, albeit briefly, along with four other members of the squad. A completely discredited Domenech resigned (he has not worked in management since), and everyone else tried to start again.
Laurent Blanc—like Thuram a member of that 1998 squad—initially inherited the mess, leading them through the European Championships two years later. He achieved some moderate successes—escaping the group stages before being outclassed by Spain—but the team spirit remained a problem, and Blanc ultimately decided the job was not worth the stress, accepting a job offer from Paris Saint-Germain.
That allowed a third cup winner, Didier Deschamps, to take the reins. The talent on offer in France was never in doubt; Deschamps’ job would be as much about cultivating a genuine team spirit as hitting upon the right tactics.
Eight goals in France’s first two World Cup matches (20 in four games, if you include the final two warm-up contests) suggest the once-great defensive midfielder has been successful in that task.
It seems that has been achieved by being as uncompromising on the touchline as he was on the pitch
“We do not have a problem with egos in this team,” Evra said a few days ago, per Sky Sports. “Nothing’s ever certain with Deschamps. That’s why I like to work with him. He never gives you presents.
“I know that if I step out of line I’m out of this team.”
With all players on a short leash, a unity of purpose has slowly developed.
“I have faith in this squad, and that’s a great strength,” Evra added. “The star isn’t one player, it’s the team.”
Against Switzerland on Friday, Deschamps’ side were enthralling, romping into a 5-0 lead before conceding two late, meaningless goals in a 5-2 win. Five different players scored. An indication of individual quality, yes, but also perhaps a nod to a greater “all for one, one for all” sentiment that now exists.
The sight of Mathieu Valbuena, far and away the smallest player in the squad, jumping on the back of his provider, Olivier Giroud, after scoring his side’s third goal, added further evidence to that sentiment.
Giroud, who was left out of the opening 3-0 win over Honduras, had earlier opened the scoring himself, seemingly shrugging off any resentment he might have felt at being snubbed for Karim Benzema on the eve of the tournament.
Infighting and ego had previously been France’s biggest enemy. Perhaps no longer.
Afterward, Deschamps was even moved to invoke the memory of 1998, a statement of confidence if ever there was one.
"It is the same thing that we saw in 1998,” Deschamps told reporters, when asked about the team spirit. “While we cannot compare each changing room, I have a very focused group at present, they have a mindset that they want to maintain.
“[While] this is not a guarantee of success, in addition to our qualities this mindset is very important."
France have all the ingredients for success in this competition, but it is the mindset that will ultimately define how far they go.
In Giroud and Benzema, they have two strikers in enviable goalscoring form, capable of threatening both in the air and on the floor, while their midfield—comprising Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye (replaced by Moussa Sissoko on Friday)—is perhaps the best all-round unit on display in Brazil this summer.
Valbuena, a talented slip of a player, knits the whole thing together.
The defence, anchored by Evra on the left, has a mix of experience and rare talent (just what heights may Raphael Varane eventually reach?), but it is further forward where France are currently doing their damage.
And even without Franck Ribery, who was ruled out through injury on the eve of the tournament.
Ribery’s late withdrawal threatened to derail the side, yet France have seemingly only become even more united in the absence of their obvious star. The injury gave young Real Sociedad winger Antoine Griezmann a chance, one he duly grasped with both hands in warm-up matches against Norway and Jamaica.
Griezmann might now become Deschamps’ secret weapon off the bench (he started the opener against Honduras, before coming on late in the game against Switzerland). Yet even he has his history, having been banned from all French representative teams for a year after taking an infamous unsanctioned trip with a couple of team-mates while on under-21 duty in 2012.
After accepting his punishment (something his co-conspirators have not been as quick to do), Griezmann has worked hard to get back into the frame.
“I knew I had to work hard and show another image of myself,” Griezmann said this week, per Paul Wilson of The Guardian.
It is a sentiment many of his teammates seem to have also bought into. It is an approach that could possibly take France much further this summer.
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