What Next for France? How 1998 Blueprint Could Show Path to Future Success

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportSeptember 6, 2018

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 15: France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris lifts the trophy during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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As several members of the France squad that won the 1998 FIFA World Cup can testify, the status of world champion is no guarantee of protection against the cruel whims of the football gods.

Zinedine Zidane's 1998-99 season was the worst of his career, a succession of injuries restricting him to 25 league appearances for Juventus and a meagre tally of two Serie A goals. Thierry Henry, his France team-mate, joined him in Turin midway through the campaign and fared little better, floundering in a wide midfield role and finding the net only three times.

Stephane Guivarc'h, France's famously goal-shy striker, joined Newcastle in a £3.5 million deal after the World Cup, but made only four appearances before being shipped out to Rangers. Lionel Charbonnier, France's third-choice goalkeeper, also wound up at Ibrox, where a cruciate knee ligament injury ended his season in November. Christian Karembeu suffered a similar injury in a training-ground collision with his Real Madrid team-mate Fernando Morientes.

"To win the World Cup was wonderful, but it was so hard to get back into it again," Zidane said at the time. "There were difficulties, especially in my head."

Twenty years later, some of the successors to Zidane, Henry, Karembeu and the rest have also made bumpy landings on their return to earth following their trip into the stratosphere at the World Cup.

Hugo Lloris, France's captain, has been charged with drink-driving. Kylian Mbappe was suspended for three games Wednesday after being sent off for shoving an opponent to the ground in Paris Saint-Germain's win at Nimes. Adil Rami was at fault for both of the goals that Marseille conceded in their 3-2 win at Monaco, having previously given away a penalty in a 2-2 draw with Rennes. Olivier Giroud, who started in all but one of France's seven games in Russia, has made only three substitute appearances for Chelsea.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 15: France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris lifts the trophy during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Life may not have been all plain sailing for France's 1998 world champions, but when they pitched up at Euro 2000 two years later, they were even better, a more spectacular team built around the genius of Zidane vanquishing Italy in the final courtesy of David Trezeguet's immortal golden goal.

The challenge facing today's France—who tackle Germany and the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League this week—is to follow exactly the same path.


As in Russia this year, France's triumph at the 1998 World Cup had to be ground out. The hosts needed a golden goal from Laurent Blanc to see off Paraguay in the last 16, a penalty shootout to overcome Italy in the quarter-finals and an unprecedented brace from right-back Lilian Thuram to get out of a tight spot against Croatia in the semi-finals before they overwhelmed Brazil (and a diminished Ronaldo) in the final.

France's Euro 2000 team were every bit as steely, but they cut more of a dash. Patrick Vieira—a bit-part player in 1998—added skill and athleticism in midfield, Henry and Nicolas Anelka brought devastating pace to the attack and in the middle of it all, Zidane walked on water, dominating the tournament from start to finish in a manner that had proved beyond him in 1998.

"We had the pressure of being world champions on our shoulders. We knew before the start of the tournament that people would be expecting things from us," said Robert Pires, who set up Trezeguet's winner against Italy in the final, in a 2015 interview with French newspaper La Depeche.

"I think that we were stronger than in 1998. I'm certain of it. The talent was still there and we added two years' experience. The squad progressed everywhere."

France changed coaches after the 1998 World Cup—Roger Lemerre replaced Aime Jacquet—but the incoming coach kept faith with the players he had inherited. The squad that went to Euro 2000 was almost identical to the one that had conquered the world two years previously (even down to the squad numbers), with Anelka, Sylvain Wiltord, Johan Micoud and back-up goalkeeper Ulrich Rame the only newcomers.

As France's captain in both 1998 and 2000, Didier Deschamps will have appreciated the benefits of that continuity, and he has stayed true to the Jacquet playbook as coach of the current side by building a squad characterised by tight interpersonal bonds and a formidable winning mentality.

Deschamps played with Zidane in 1998
Deschamps played with Zidane in 1998PEDRO UGARTE/Getty Images

Deschamps, who is under contract until 2020, has a younger squad than the one Jacquet led to World Cup glory, and with only a handful of individuals the wrong side of 30, there appears to be little scope (form and injuries notwithstanding) for turnover. The spine of the World Cup team—Lloris, Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann—seems certain to remain intact.

From the squad that prevailed in Russia, only injured goalkeepers Lloris and Steve Mandanda are absent from the group that will take on Germany and the Netherlands, their places taken by Bordeaux's Benoit Costil and Montpellier's Benjamin Lecomte. With PSG's Alphonse Areola seen as Lloris' heir apparent, Costil and Lecomte are among the French goalkeepers hoping to supplant Mandanda—who is 33 and increasingly injury-prone—as the new third option.

Rami has been included in the squad despite having announced his international retirement after the World Cup final, but with his 33rd birthday just over three months away, he will probably not be on the scene come Euro 2020. Chelsea's Kurt Zouma, who is a month into a loan spell at Everton, and RB Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano are among the alternatives who could provide cover for Varane in the right-sided centre-back role.

Benjamin Pavard will continue at right-back, but Benjamin Mendy's resurgent form for Manchester City will be giving Lucas Hernandez sleepless nights about his status on the other flank of the defence.

Blaise Matuidi is 31 and will not be able to make his lung-bursting runs through midfield forever, even if he has shown few signs of slowing down with either France or Juventus. Corentin Tolisso, Thomas Lemar, Dimitri Payet and Ousmane Dembele represent—in order—progressively more attacking alternatives on the left of midfield.

Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial would also be part of the conversation were the former not injured and the latter not in conflict with his club manager, Jose Mourinho. Adrien Rabiot's international career is on hold after he rejected a place on the standby list ahead of the World Cup.

The first-team player most at risk of losing his place would appear to be Giroud. Though the arrival of his 32nd birthday at the end of September is unlikely to have much of an impact on the way he plays, since he never had any pace to lose in the first place, his lack of playing time at Chelsea could prove costly.

Giroud's place looks like it could be under threat
Giroud's place looks like it could be under threatIan MacNicol/Getty Images

Deschamps is not spoilt for choice at centre-forward, but Alexandre Lacazette's encouraging start to the season with Arsenal could open the door to an international return, and there will be interest in how Moussa Dembele fares at Lyon following his move from Celtic.

Should Deschamps decide to reconfigure his attack, one option would be to move Mbappe off the right flank and into a more central position. The chances of a recall for Karim Benzema, who has started the season explosively with Real Madrid, continue to appear remote after the 2015 allegations he was involved in blackmailing then-international teammate Mathieu Valbuena.

The absence of French players from the three-man shortlist for FIFA's The Best Men's Player Award showed that this France team does not yet possess an undisputed figurehead like Zidane, but in Pogba, Griezmann and Mbappe, there are three players for whom Euro 2020 could yet prove a glorious coronation. Deschamps, for his part, is convinced that France will be even stronger by then.

"Looking at the average age [of the squad], the team will become even more competitive in the next two to four years," he said during the World Cup.

"Apart from a few 30-somethings, for whom it might be bit difficult, there's a generation of players around the age of 20 and there's those who are already between 25 and 27 who should be there in the next two to four years. There's significant potential."

Deschamps has led France to World Cup success and is already thinking about the glory that may still lie ahead. It could be 1998 all over again.

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