France are the logical favourites to win Euro 2020. Being France, there is always the possibility they might be derailed from within. Ahead of their tournament opener in Munich on Tuesday night, internal tensions were already setting the agenda.
After coming off the field, with two goals to his name, in the final warm-up match against Bulgaria, Olivier Giroud, the veteran striker and Les Bleus all-time second-highest goalscorer, complained about a lack of service.
“I was making the runs but the passes weren’t coming to me,” said Giroud, who had replaced the injured Karim Benzema just before half-time. “If you didn’t see much of me earlier on, well, maybe we could have done better looking for me. I won’t claim to always make the right calls with my runs though I try to. But there’s no bitterness.”
If Giroud thought the episode was closed with that last remark, he was mistaken. His irritation that passes were not reaching him during his 50 minutes of action against Bulgaria was plain and he made it very public. Kylian Mbappe, playing wide of Giroud, felt implicated, suspected of being among those accused of not passing.
Mbappe wanted to address the media on the issue. “What [Giroud said] not worry me, because it’s what he felt. It was him coming out publicly, when we had seen each other and he had not said anything to me. I’d have preferred if he had come to me,” Mbappe told a press conference.
Mbappe is 22, but with a World Cup already to his name and superstar status, he regards himself as a leader of France’s gifted squad. Having made his point about Giroud's speaking out, he was keen to soothe fears of a damaging spat. “We’re not going to make a great big story out of this.” A “micro-episode”, he called it.
“It’s behind us,” insisted Hugo Lloris, the France captain, adding that Giroud and Mbappe had spoken to one another the day after the match “which is normal”.
Didier Deschamps, the head coach, talked to the strikers too. “I speak to all my players when I think there may be little adjustments to make,” said Deschamps.
Deschamps, a former World Cup and Euro-winning France captain and their coach at the triumph of Russia 2018, knows rows have a habit of fracturing team spirit and that he is in charge of a national team that in the past has been susceptible to internal implosion.
Most notoriously, there was the 2010 World Cup campaign, when a confrontation between the striker Nicolas Anelka and the then coach Raymond Domenech escalated to the point where the players effectively went on strike from training. France were eliminated at the group stage.
Giroud on target in France win over Bulgaria
Clashes between players and coaching staff undermined France’s Euro 2012, too, and though Deschamps, appointed head coach after that, has been an admired and stabilising manager, he has had his own awkward confrontations with players. Two of those expected to be in Tuesday’s starting XI have history: Adrien Rabiot, of Juventus, spent two years estranged from Deschamps’ squads after refusing to be on the stand-by list for the 2018 World Cup.
As for Benzema, his exclusion seemed indefinite after he was left out of the Euro 2016 squad following some off-the-pitch legal issues and a very public, barbed criticism of Deschamps.
Benzema, who has been in superb form for Madrid, later belittled Giroud’s talents compared with his own - “you can’t mistake a go-kart for a formula one car”, said Benzema - although Giroud made light of that remark when, last month, they were reunited as fellow-internationals.
What is clear is that 33 year-old Benzema's recall has directly affected Giroud's first-team status. Their respective club form - Giroud has been a substitute for Chelsea for most of the last year - demands that, if fit, the Madrid striker starts for Les Bleus, playing between Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann in attack. Benzema has fully recovered from the knock he picked up against Bulgaria.
Benzema marked his first match since his recall by having a penalty saved, against Wales, which may count against him at least in the hierarchy for spot-kick takers. Penalty duties have also emerged as a point of contention, since Griezmann last week claimed in L’Equipe, “I think, for the coach, I’m the first choice [for penalties].”
When that was put to Mbappe, who scored nine penalties for Paris Saint-Germain this season but saw a spot-kick for France saved in March, he said, bluntly: “The coach has said nothing [about penalties] yet. At the moment there is no hierarchy.”
Deschamps kept his counsel on the issue. “If I say to you [reporters] who is the first in line for taking our penalties, I’d be telling the opposition,” he smiled yesterday. Whoever is named chief penalty-taker, at least two from among Griezmann, Mbappe and Paul Pogba will feel put out.