It seemed to take an eternity for Eder’s shot to streak across the turf and into the back of the net. Portugal had been through the misery of losing to an underdog at home, as they did against Greece in 2004, and all of France that saw the ball trickle across the line knew, with 10 minutes of extra time to go, that they would too. Ronaldo had been stretchered off in the 25th minute against the golden generation on their own patch – and yet, France came up short.
Fast forward 18 months, France have secured their passage to Russia, perhaps not as emphatically as they would’ve liked, but unscathed nonetheless. Taking them there will be Didier Deschamps, the captain of their other golden generation – the one that won the World Cup in 1998 and the 2000 European Championships. Deschamps is part of the elite bunch of Marcelo Lippi’s Juventus squad of the 90s that have taken to management, and excelled at it, much like Massimo Carrera, the man who has reinstated Spartak Moscow to the pinnacle of Russian football, Antonio Conte, currently in charge of a fine Chelsea side, and compatriot Zinedine Zidane, whose blinding success has yielded 7 trophies in his first 100 games at Real Madrid.
Deschamps has learned from the best in the business, and has been a calming influence the FFF needed. He took over the national side at a testing time in 2012, taking charge of a young yet talented side and guiding them to the quarter-finals in Brazil where they lost out to eventual champions Germany, following it up with a solid run to the final last year. Still, there’s a lingering sense of underachievement among this group, and it’s up to Deschamps to take the next step in their progress. Winning the World Cup would be a good place to start.
For all the considerable talent at his disposal however, Deschamps is still searching for that winning formula. Simply put, France have the most valuable squad in world football. Since the 2016 summer transfer window, French players Pogba, Mbappé, Dembélé et al have been the subject of record-breaking deals involving eye-watering sums of money across Europe. They’re all the vogue at the moment but as a team, something isn’t quite clicking.
Key Players for France going into Russia
Les Bleus took until the last round of qualifying matches to secure automatic qualification to Russia, having been held at home by 136th-ranked minnows Luxembourg and beaten by their only rivals for the spot in Sweden. In between, they were thoroughly outclassed at home in a 2-0 defeat from Spain. Their all star attack isn’t firing either, scoring 18 goals in 10 qualifying games. In comparison Spain, Belgium and Germany have all scored 35 or more. They need to get their act together, with the following players taking up the starring roles –
Hugo Lloris –
Long standing captain and goalkeeper, Lloris has become one of the best in the business since his move to England with Tottenham. Despite standout performances, he’s been left frustrated from failed title challenges and lost cup finals for both club and country. He’s one of the most experienced squad members at 30 and will be looking to lead from the back.
Raphaël Varane –
Following Pepe’s departure, Varane has finally made the centre-back spot at Real Madrid his own. Deschamps will be hoping he benefits from the guidance of his old teammate Zidane, and alongside Sergio Ramos. The definition of a modern defender, Varane will provide the backbone for his side at his second World Cup.
Paul Pogba – Now in his second season at Old Trafford, Pogba is showing more than just glimpses of his attacking prowess. Given the license to bomb forward from the middle of the park, Pogba’s vision, skill and power means he will be expected to orchestrate and provide for his team going forward.
Antoine Griezmann – You know you’ve made it when Manchester United set aside £100 million and their number 7 jersey for you. With Karim Benzema exiled from the national set-up, Griezmann has stepped up to lead the line, announcing himself at the Euros. Flanked this time by the deadly Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé, the Atleti man will once again be the focal point of France’s attack.
17 years on from their last major trophy, France have assembled a side as talented as any in their illustrious past – a side that has done its waiting. Their time is now.
Feature Image via EuroSport
France team image via Icon Sport
To read more by Kabir Ali