France has restored its winning belief, has makings of a World Cup success
Four years. It was four years ago, to the day, that the French players went on strike in Knysna, South Africa, at the 2010 World Cup, when they took the field in Salvador, Brazil, to face Switzerland in its second group match. France beat the Swiss 5-2, and it could have been more had Karim Benzema not missed a penalty and had a last-minute goal disallowed (as the referee had just blown the final whistle). It was hard not to think about how far this team had come.
In four years, from global laughing-stock to serious World Cup contender. How did that happen?
First you need to go back to November 2009 and remember the circumstances of France's controversial qualification for the 2010 World Cup: a playoff draw with Ireland in which Thierry Henry's handball overshadowed all else.
Henry had been quoted in Le Parisien as telling his teammates before the September qualifier against Romania: "For 12 years I've been in the France team and I have never been in this situation: we do not know how to play, we have no style, no guiding principle, no identity."
That January, FA president Jean-Pierre Escalettes made public a short-list of potential successors for coach Raymond Domenech, undermining what little authority the coach had left. In March, the team lost 2-0 at home to Spain, and in April, the Zahia Dehar Affair broke, in which three players were accused of sleeping with an underage prostitute. It would appear that lessons have been learned. Four years on, the biggest change has come at the top, where the relationship between manager Didier Deschamps and his president, Noël Le Graët, is a strong one.
"There are no misunderstandings between us," Deschamps told L'Equipe. "We know our roles, he takes the decisions, and I am just the coach."
If anything, the failure of Knysna was one of management as much as the players. But the Deschamps- Le Graët partnership is based on the notion of the collective.
"I see now there is a lot of maturity, serenity, experience and professionalism [between them]," Saint-Etienne president Bernard Caïazzo told France Football magazine.
In spite of that, it was still asked, in the aftermath of France's 2-0 loss to Ukraine last November: "Is this the worst France team in history?" Four days later, France won the second leg 3-0, and the momentum shifted inexorably. Deschamps had put his faith in young players: 24-year-old Mamadou Sakho, playing for the suspended Laurent Koscielny, scored twice and impressed his teammates with an impassioned pre-match speech (he is vice-captain in this squad). Rapahel Varane and Paul Pogba, both 21, represent a bright future.
Significantly, these young players have charisma and drive; they work hard and are proud to play for France and carry none of the baggage of someone like Samir Nasri, who disrupted Euro 2012 by turning in an expletive-laced rant at a journalist and giving the impression he did not want to be there.
Other stories emerged from that tournament: Hatem Ben Arfa had challenged coach Laurent Blanc to send him home following a row after the group game against Sweden, while Jeremy Menez upset officials first by trying to stand on a rolling ball and salute during the warm-up before the Spain game, then swearing and making an offensive gesture at captain Hugo Lloris mid-match.
"Les Bleus have made enormous efforts during this Euro, on and off the pitch, to remove the specter of Knysna from the group. But on Saturday, in Donetsk, Menez and Nasri tried everything to remind them of it," wrote Liberation at the time. "Entitled, arrogant and detestable," said French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut. The country had fallen out of love with its stars.
That's why Deschamps pointedly said that he had picked the best group of 23, rather than the best 23 players, for Brazil. And it has worked so far. Pogba made way after the first game, with not a word of complaint. His replacement, Moussa Sissoko, scored a smart goal against Switzerland. Olivier Giroud was benched for the first game against Honduras (again, no moaning) and was outstanding when brought in to face Switzerland.
"He played like an 8-year-old in the playground," wrote L'Equipe. "He jumped like a kangaroo on ecstasy, and most of all showed that this is a squad game."
So how far can this France team go? Comparisons have been made with the 1998 side that won it all, not least because Deschamps captained that side and is seen as the spiritual son of Aime Jacquet, the World Cup-winning coach. Jacquet and his side endured huge criticism in the build-up to that tournament, and France had suffered its "Knysna moment" four-and-a-bit years earlier with a qualifying defeat at home to Bulgaria, which ruled it out of the 1994 World Cup.
All sounds a bit familiar? The only knock on this side is France's lack of a world star. Whenever it has reached the semifinals or further in the World Cup, it has had the best player in the world on its side: Raymond Kopa (1958, third place), Michel Platini (1986, third place) and Zinedine Zidane (1998, winner). There were concerns that without the injured Franck Ribery, France would miss that player. But as L'Equipe pointed out, Nasri and Ribery slow down the pace of attack, and without them, "the ball travels quicker."
Then there is Benzema, who is proving to be the main man, equally comfortable in the middle or wide left, as he was against Switzerland. Benzema made his France debut at 19 and is now 26, the same age Zidane was in the 1998 finals.
See? Wherever you look, there are comparisons to be made. French fans are finding them everywhere. They are starting to believe.