Paul Pogba made quite a show of celebrating his goal in Bucharest. There was a rehearsed jive with Presnel Kimpembe, his teammate. There was an elaborate twirl of arms, in the style of an extrovert traffic policeman at a busy junction. Nobody could begrudge Pogba milking the moment: it had been a stunning goal.
The Manchester United midfielder has peppered Euro 2020 with many moments of inimitable brilliance. Against Switzerland on Tuesday night, he was entitled to believe he had settled a fabulous last-16 tie with his wonderful strike, capping a high-class surge of world-champion style to put France 3-1 up with 15 minutes left on the clock.
They had turned around a 1-0 half-time deficit. Various of their leaders could be applauded for solving a crisis. Didier Deschamps, the head coach, had corrected a flawed tactical plan, and by reverting to a back four from his initial 3-4-3, made France look incisive and urgent.
Hugo Lloris, the captain, saved a Swiss penalty. Karim Benzema, recalled last month by Deschamps to lead the forward line, showed the range of the skills that make him uniquely apt for that, his deft footwork and finish delivering the equaliser, his alertness and strong leap putting France in front. Pogba, creator-in-chief, added his superb goal.
But briskly and brutally, those France figureheads were brought back to earth. Deschamps’ more ordered France of the second half gave way to a careless version, substitute Kingsley Coman giving the ball away in the lead-up to an 81st minute Swiss goal. Pogba was dispossessed in the 90th minute, and Switzerland broke with purpose, equalising to usher in extra-time.
The greatest misfortune was left for the superstar, Kylian Mbappe, who missed a chance to win the tie and prevent a penalty shoot-out. And in that shoot-out, Mbappe's penalty, France's fifth, would be saved. Switzerland were through to the quarter-finals at that moment.
Mbappe felt crushed. “He is obviously very affected by it,” said Deschamps. “Nobody should be cross with him. He took the responsibility and he feels guilty. He shouldn’t.”
Deschamps knew the search for scapegoats was already under way and that it would dominate the next few days. France have fallen suddenly from Euro 2020’s pre-tournament favourites to toppled giants, outplayed and outthought by Switzerland for the first 45 minutes in Bucharest, and outfought by them in the closing stages of an epic, exhausting night.
Past pedigree makes it a stunning result. Switzerland last reached the quarter-finals of a major competition in 1954. France are the World Cup holders. They were finalists at the last European championship.
Deschamps is due, next summer, to mark 10 years in charge of a national team he had taken steadily upwards until Monday night and his contract covers the next World Cup, which is only 18 months away. That now looks less certain than it did 48 hours ago.
He acknowledged failings. “I am responsible when things turn out badly,” he said. “We have to find the right balance in the future. It will need some time to deal with this.”
The possibility that Deschamps could be replaced quickly has grown since Zinedine Zidane, a former France captain, left his coaching position at Real Madrid last month. Zidane is available, and the national team job is one he would be open to taking at some stage.
Switzerland v France player ratings
Mbappe remains a centrepiece for Les Bleus’ future, but Euro 2020 has been as personally deflating for a player who aspires to winning Ballon D’Ors as the last World Cup was thrilling. He was 18 then, and scored in the victorious final, after looking unstoppable at times during the tournament.
At this championship, opponents have found the means to better contain his pace on the ball. He has not been entirely muted, but the contrast with Mbappe’s club season, when he scored 42 goals at a rate better than one every 90 minutes for Paris Saint-Germain and a Euro 2020 that he leaves after five-and-a-half hours on the pitch without a goal is stark.
In Bucharest, Mbappe was outperformed by Haris Seferovic, the Swiss centre-forward, whose two headed goals will act as an enduring rebuke to the long-running criticism at home that Seferovic is a one-dimensional striker, one who wastes many more chances than he converts. On a historic night for the Swiss, captain Granit Xhaka also excelled, not least in his duels against Pogba.
“What was fantastic was our willingness to fight,” said Vladimir Petkovic, the Switzerland head coach, whose substitutes played key roles in the comeback. “We imposed our gameplan and we had enough petrol left in the tank, perhaps more than France.”
The Swiss now refuel for a meeting with Spain. They may need a full tank. Spain have given clear notice that they are no longer easily contained, over 90 minutes or 120.