France are out of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil after a 1-0 defeat to Germany at Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
Mats Hummels’ early header proved the ultimate difference between the two sides, but the gap in terms of collective experience between the two was much wider.
Joachim Low’s team march into another semi-final, its fourth consecutively in the tournament, but France exit having made it into the last eight for the first time since 2006. Considering the failures of the past, that showing represents progress, and Didier Deschamps and his players can take heart from their overall performance.
However, the manner of the loss to Germany will have the team wondering what might have been.
Deschamps and his players showed far too much respect to their opponents, failing to get into the game early on and immediately giving the Germans the upper hand. It took Hummels just 13 minutes to find the back of the net, and that is all it took to win the tie.
Prior to the World Cup, questions were asked of the squad’s collective inexperience. That scrutiny intensified when Franck Ribery—the most seasoned individual in the group prior to his withdrawal through injury—was forced to miss the tournament.
Second to the Bayern Munich man was Karim Benzema and he, like many of his team-mates, looked overawed by the occasion.
France allowed themselves to have their confidence knocked early on by a Germany side intent on finding the most efficient way past its talented—but naive—opponents. It discovered that path almost immediately, as the French failed to show the same insatiability in front of goal that was exhibited against Honduras and Switzerland.
After the goal, Deschamps’ side regained some of its composure and came into the game a little more. However, by that time the damage was already done.
Raphael Varane—immense for the majority of the tournament—was temporarily transported back to his playground days for the goal, bullied by Hummels, who showed far too much strength and desire for the 21-year-old talent to handle.
But that is part of the beauty of this French side, many of the players—like Varane—are a work in progress, and, as a team, Les Bleus are still collectively extremely young.
Deschamps is already looking at the positives ahead of the 2016 UEFA European Championship on home soil, as ligue1.com reported:
"I hope that nonetheless the core of a strong team was forged here. Something has happened since we beat the Ukraine for a place here in Brazil and there have been very promising signs along the way, including today," he said. "I'm very proud of how my players have conducted themselves both on and off the pitch."
It should not be overlooked that this will be a learning curve for Deschamps as much as for his players. The 45-year-old is still relatively new to the international coaching stage, and this was his first taste of an international tournament.
Although he will rue not making changes earlier in the game when it became obvious that France were not making much progress in breaking down a vulnerable German back line, he should perhaps reflect more on the key players he did not rest in the final Group E encounter with Ecuador.
Those same key players looked weary and heavy-legged as the game wore on at the Maracana.
Considering that France very nearly did not even make it to Brazil, both coach and players performed well and can take heart from their overall performance. However, they must also heed the lessons from the narrow loss to Germany.
As far as collective experience goes, the Germans are vastly superior to Les Bleus. However, they still ran Low’s men close and—on another day—might have even scored the equaliser that they were unable to muster in Rio de Janeiro.
The spine of a strong, talented team is there, as are the foundations of a powerful and close-knit unit. The lessons learned will strengthen those two elements, and France will be a better team for it in the Euro 2016 on home soil.
What they will lose, though, is the freedom to express themselves through a lack of pressure.
Against Germany, there were no expectations placed on the side, and that should have seen France play with fewer inhibitions. Instead, it appeared to have the opposite effect. Deschamps and his players will need to embrace the fact that the next time they play a competitive match, it will be as the host nation and title favourites.
Les Bleus have grown and matured impressively in Brazil, but the Germany result proves that they have not yet come of age. The Germany loss is their first since that fateful 2-0 World Cup play-off defeat to Ukraine in Kiev all the way back in November, and that is something that they can take heart from.
With time and the right nurturing from Deschamps, there is little doubt that this team will eventually win one international competition, if not more. The negative aspects of France’s World Cup exit should be greatly outweighed by the many positives to come from this encouraging run to the quarter-finals.