June 08, 2016

PARIS (AP) France coach Didier Deschamps wants the European Championship, which starts Friday, to give the French people an ''escape'' from security fears, violent labor protests, train strikes and floods.

''A big competition, especially when a country has social problems, allows the French people a moment of escape,'' Deschamps said Wednesday.

In what should normally be a time for excitement and anticipation, host France's Euro 2016 preparations have been overshadowed above all by security concerns, and there will be unease among fans flocking to the national stadium on Friday evening for the opener against Romania.

On Nov. 13, suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Stade de France during France's friendly against Germany, triggering off a wave of deadly attacks during which 130 people were killed. The country has been in a state of emergency ever since and there will be an unprecedented level of security at stadiums and in fan zones.

''No one can forget what happened,'' Jacques Lambert, president of the Euro 2016 organizing committee, said Wednesday at a pre-tournament news conference. ''Whatever the circumstances, we want to stay completely focused on our objective: to have the best Euro possible at every level and not to be sidetracked by external factors that we don't have total control over.''

Lambert adds that ''it hasn't been easy'' preparing Euro 2016, ''but we have done everything that's humanly and professionally possible to deliver the most well organized Euro possible.''

France won as host in 1984 and again in 2000 - but key injuries, suspensions and the fallout from Karim Benzema's controversial omission have combined to give Deschamps one almighty headache.

In April, it was announced that Benzema would not play at Euro 2016 after his national federation ruled against his return. The Real Madrid striker is facing preliminary charges of conspiracy to blackmail, relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape involving France teammate Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema denies any wrongdoing.

Deschamps has lost lynchpin center back Raphael Varane, midfielder Lassana Diarra, Chelsea center half Kurt Zouma, Barcelona center half Jeremy Mathieu and right back Mathieu Debuchy - all to injury - while Liverpool center half Mamadou Sakho could not be selected when Deschamps named his squad on May 12 since he was provisionally suspended by UEFA after failing a doping test.

On top of all that, Deschamps has tried not to be dragged into a racism debate in the wake of recent interviews given by Benzema and by former France striker Eric Cantona.

Benzema told Spanish sports newspaper Marca that he does not believe that Deschamps is a racist, but that he ''bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France'' when not selecting him. The next day, sports daily L'Equipe's headline was ''La Tempete'' (The Storm), above a picture of a stern-faced Deschamps.

In an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, Cantona said that Deschamps might have left out Benzema and Nice winger Hatem Ben Arfa - whose father is a former Tunisia international - on racial grounds.

''Honestly, not even in my worst nightmares could I have imagined everything that's happened to us,'' Deschamps told L'Equipe on Wednesday.

Former players such as 1998 World Cup winners Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit have criticized Benzema for his comments, while players in the Euro 2016 squad have also spoken up for Deschamps.

''I don't think there is any racism, any problems,'' right back Bacary Sagna said Wednesday at France's Clairefontaine training base on the outskirts of Paris. ''It's silly that these comments are being made before the Euro. It's a bit of recurring thing and it's a real pity. We want to rub all of that out by going all the way.''

After going out of the group stage at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, France had quarterfinal appearances at Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup - losing 1-0 to eventual winner Germany.

More importantly, the last World Cup went some way to winning back fans.

''We saw the passion back home, we want to repeat that,'' Sagna said. ''Of course there's quite a lot of expectation. But we're ready, despite the pressure.''

Expectation levels have risen with France winning nine of the past 10 matches and scoring 13 goals in the past four.

''Pressure? Certainly not. Pressure is negative,'' Deschamps said. ''You just need adrenalin, excitement.''

But Deschamps knows what the French people really want.

''They want to see us win,'' he said.

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