2014 World Cup Group E team previews: France
Four years after making fools of themselves in South Africa, France have regained their credibility and can even realistically contemplate having a major impact at the World Cup finals.
In 2010, “Les Bleus” went on strike in support of Nicolas Anelka, who had been kicked out of the squad for insulting coach Raymond Domenech, and exited the competition in the first round.
Laurent Blanc took the team to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals but off-field problems again got in the way and the French players were lambasted for their childish behaviour.
It has taken new coach Didier Deschamps less than two years to transform the squad and their image.
“They can go far,” said former France forward Youri Djorkaeff, a member of the World Cup-winning team in 1998.
“Winning the World Cup might be complicated but I think they have recovered the panache, the desire, the stability that can help them go through the group phase and challenge the best teams.”
France, drawn in Group E with Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador, should claim top spot. Since 1998, the erratic French have either reached the final or failed to win a game at the World Cup.
The official Fifa World Cup rankings for their past four World Cup finals appearances bear that point out: first in 1998, 28th in 2002, second in 2006, 29th in 2010.
If that pattern is repeated they are set to reach the final again this time, but a semi-final appearance might be a more likely target if they click as they can.
Their qualifying campaign was a microcosm of their ability to turn out Jekyll and Hyde performances. After a series of indifferent matches in the regular campaign, the play-off against Ukraine was the turning point.
The qualifying campaign was disappointing but victory in the play-offs gave a hint of a better future, when the Stade de France crowd finally backed their team unreservedly.
After a 2-0 defeat in Kiev, Deschamps dumped defender Eric Abidal and midfielder Samir Nasri for the return leg.
France played fearlessly as centre-back Mamadou Sakho scored two goals with a resurgent Karim Benzema netting the other to guarantee a last-gasp passage to Brazil.
“Something strong happened. Most of them had no happy memories with France,” said Deschamps. “Now it’s part of their history, it changes a lot of things.”
Sports daily L’Equipe, who wondered on their front page after the first leg if France were the “worst team” in history, made a U-turn after the second game with the headline “Respect”.
A team that had no clear direction on the pitch, France now rely on a stable midfield consisting of Yohan Cabaye, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, a perfect launching pad for the attacking trio of Mathieu Valbuena, Franck Ribery and Benzema.
Ribery, one of the players sanctioned over the South Africa debacle, failed to sparkle at Euro 2012 but he has been beaming on and off the pitch since then.
Benzema went through a scoring drought but Deschamps kept the faith, which was eventually repaid when the Real Madrid striker finally hit his stride in the blue jersey.
The striker, 26, who has brushed aside the claims of Olivier Giroud to become the first-choice striker, has netted four times in his past five appearances.
France’s rejuvenation has come at the expense of promising players like Hatem Ben Arfa and Nasri, the latter possibly paying for his reputation as a troublemaker.
The team are already preparing for Euro 2016, which will be played in France.
Young players, such as centre-back Raphael Varane and Pogba, are showing with Real Madrid and Juventus they have what it takes to drive the side forward.
Five to watch:
Hugo Lloris, goalkeeper (Tottenham Hotspur); age 27; 55 caps. Although he has had a difficult season behind an unreliable Tottenham defence, Lloris remains the undisputed No 1 having never disappointed with France. A soft-spoken character, he has even been awarded the captain’s armband by former coach Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps did not take it away from him as Lloris can raise his voice when needed
Patrice Evra, left-back (Manchester United); age 33; 55 caps. Was France captain when Les Bleus went on strike at the 2010 World Cup. Came back after a five-game suspension but has failed to shine with the national team, showing too many defensive weaknesses. A likely starter as he does not really face competition for his place. Like many of his clubmates has had a difficult season at Manchester United.
Paul Pogba, midfielder (Juventus); age 21; 8 caps. In England they say of Pogba “the one Alex Ferguson should not have let go” following his departure from Manchester United in 2012 after only a handful of games for the club. Another defensive midfielder with a box-to-box drive, the 2013 Golden Boy award winner also has penchant for goals and for the spectacular. He has quickly made it to the first team at Juventus and is already a starter for France. Oozes class and talent.
Franck Ribery, attacking midfielder (Bayern Munich); age 31; 81 caps. Dubbed “the jewel of French football”, Ribery has gained in maturity while recovering the joy of his early years – a dangerous combination for France’s rivals. The speedy Bayern Munich winger is the No 1 French weapon. Has been France’s Player of the Year three times, Germany’s Player of the Year once and finished third in Fifa’s Ballon d’Or for the best player in the world last year behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Karim Benzema, striker (Real Madrid); age 26; 65 caps. Benzema seems to have finally shed the extra kilos that previously prevented him to hit top form and has rediscovered his scoring touch with France after a 1,222-minute drought. Finding his mark as France’s lone forward, he can also play in a deeper role. Has repaid Real’s faith in him when they signed him for €40 million (Dh200.4m) from Lyon in 2009.
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Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM