ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Whether they’re the team the world wants them to be, or thinks they should be, doesn’t much matter at the moment. France is still standing, unbeaten at this World Cup and now, after Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat of neighboring Belgium, on its way to the final.
The aim is to lift the World Cup. And for the most part, Johan Cruyff and the Dutch or the Magical Magyars of Hungary notwithstanding, it’s the trophy that creates legends and shapes perspective. Renown doesn’t win World Cups. World Cups lead to renown.
Didier Deschamps knows this as well as anyone. He captained his country’s 1998 world championship team, and now manages the side that’s a game away. Time and again on Tuesday, he was asked during his late-night postgame press conference at the Krestovsky Stadium about potential comparisons. He was reluctant, understandably, to make this summer’s run about anything other than the men now wearing blue. They didn’t need to hear his old stories, he insisted. One of his players wasn’t even born when France won two decades ago.
“You can’t really look back to see what’s in the rear-view mirror. That’s not how you’re going to move forward,” Deschamps said.
It may not be the pathway to progress, but it can offer a lesson in how we assess a title run. The lore of ’98 that moved about a half-dozen reporters to ask some version of the comparison question is bathed in the light that shined on the 1.5 million fans who celebrated the championship on the Champs-Élysées. And it’s shaped significantly by ensuing triumphs—especially at Euro 2000—and the impact of many of the stars we associate with that era, from Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram, to those who excelled later like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry.
What doesn’t get talked about is how bumpy the road to that first crown really was. There was Zidane’s two-game ban for stepping on an opponent, the overtime escape against modest Paraguay, and the quarterfinal shootout vs. Italy. France couldn’t buy a goal from a forward in that tournament. And even heading into the final against Brazil, many wondered how Les Bleus would cope with Ronaldo, Bebeto and Co. But thanks to a couple of Zidane headers and the star that’s been on the jersey ever since, that team is helping define the postgame narrative 20 years later.
They didn’t wow many on the way. They weren't even favored in a final contested on home soil. But now, they’re iconic. Just get it done, and let assessment, evaluation and history take care of the rest.
“What is important, is to become more solid through results,” Deschamps said.
And so this French team is following a similar path, focusing without apology on pragmatism and bottom-line results. They’re so loaded with talent that before the tournament, the talk was as much about some of the players who weren’t going to Russia as those who were. Come to a World Cup with star power and depth like this, and people expect a show.
What they’ve gotten, instead, is a team that’s playing solid—and so far, unbeatable—tournament soccer. Apart from the 4-3, round-of-16 rodeo with Argentina, which was a strange match that’s going to have to exist in its own tactical bubble, France has yet to take hold of this World Cup with style or panache, like many thought it would. Instead, Les Bleus have slowly bent the competition to their will.
France yielded only two goals on its way to the ’98 title, anchored by a defense led by Thuram and the rock-solid Marcel Desailly, and a no-nonsense midfield paced by Deschamps and Christian Karembeu. They found ways to manufacture the goals they needed and made very few mistakes. So too, has its 2018 successor. France’s suffocation of Belgium—this World Cup’s highest scoring side—was clinical. The brilliant N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba put the vital parts of midfield on lockdown, while the flanks were ceded to Belgian players who wouldn’t or couldn’t provide the required service to striker Romelu Lukaku. When called upon, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was outstanding.
For a team as talented and hyped as France to demonstrate a willingness to play a more conservative game—to prioritize the result over aesthetics, and to care less about how it looked than what it achieved, is a crucial component to its progress. Defender Samuel Umtiti scored the semifinal’s only goal on a second-half corner kick. The game-winner in the quarterfinal against Uruguay was notched by Umtiti’s central defense partner, Raphaël Varane. France cares not.
Antoine Griezmann lacked precision Tuesday, but his work ethic and creative impulse were good enough. Center forward Olivier Giroud shanked a couple chances, hasn’t put a shot on target at this World Cup, gets crushed by fans and the press and still remains invaluable to Deschamps’ system. Giroud’s ’98 counterpart, Stéphane Guivarc’h, didn’t score a World Cup goal either. But he’s got a World Cup medal.
France’s defensive performance, Deschamps said, played a “huge role.” He added, “We had to defend really low sometimes, because this Belgian team had great technical qualities. But the idea was not to give them any space, because they can be like lightning bolts if you give them the space like we saw against Brazil [in the quarterfinals].”
This was reactive soccer played proactively, and thanks to Kylian Mbappé, France can sit back and counter with a lightning bolt of its own. He’s the 19-year-old who wasn’t born when Deschamps lifted the trophy, and his flair, confidence and audaciousness—evident on a no-look pass rolled with the sole of his foot to Giroud in the second half—is the most watchable and exciting thing about this French side. Just as a 25-year-old Zidane offered the 1998 team that bit of quality that could make the difference in a game that became a grind, so can Mbappé. The young Parisian has a very long way to go to match the career of the three-time world player of the year, but like Zidane, Mbappé has the talent to make the devastating difference for a side focused on getting all the small things right.
If France wins its second World Cup against Croatia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, it’ll be those moments of brilliance that’ll be remembered and celebrated—a Lloris save, Benjamin Pavard’s astonishing strike against Argentina. We'll wax poetic about Kante’s coverage and composure, or Pogba's growth. The fact that those moments came in frustrating isolation, or the fact that France’s forwards couldn’t score, or the fact that most people think now that Deschamps still is too conservative a manager for so talented a group, won’t matter.