• When France won the World Cup 20 years ago, it followed it up with a dynamic run to the Euro 2000 title. Can history repeat itself again for Les Bleus and their endless cast of stars, beginning in the new UEFA Nations League?
By Jonathan Wilson
September 05, 2018

Winning the World Cup is a fairly unanswerable accomplishment, but as the dust settles after what was the best international summer in recent memory, there is a lingering sense that a great and dramatic tournament didn’t necessarily have a great and dramatic champion. As France begins its Nations League campaign against Germany on Thursday, questions remain about just how good a side it is–and can be.

France has been here before. It won the 1998 World Cup with a team that was more celebrated for its racial mix than for the football it had played. As the Champs Elysees erupted in celebration, it felt a little inconsiderate to point out that it had labored its way through a weak group, required a golden goal in extra time to beat Paraguay, scraped by Italy on penalties and very nearly lost to Croatia in the semifinal before cuffing aside a Brazil side clearly affected by the mystery surrounding Ronaldo’s health in the final. That team, though, went on to win Euro 2000 playing sparkling football, which cast the 1998 triumph in a kinder light.

France Sticks to Its Formula Before Unlocking Potential to Seal World Cup Title

There is no reason Didier Deschamps’s side can’t do something similar 20 years later.

This France generation certainly has the players, which was part of the frustration of this past World Cup. There was a sense always of France, to use a Wengerism, playing with the handbrake on. Again, it’s hard to criticize a team that has just won the World Cup, but there were times when the approach seemed counterproductive.

Defending is as much a part of football as attacking, and no coach should be criticized if he has chosen to emphasize that part of the game–provided that is the best way for him to get the best possible result.

Football, fundamentally, is about winning. Style comes later, but it’s a happy facet of the modern game that, at the highest level, the football that has proved most effective also tends to have been the most entertaining.

Stefan Matzke/Sampics/Corbis/Getty Images

Had Deschamps opted primarily to control games by sitting deep, springing forward to use the pace of Kylian Mbappe on the break, that would have been an entirely reasonable approach. But France rarely controlled games. It managed somehow to concede three to a shambolic Argentina side. L’Equipe listed that 4-3 win in the last 16 as one of the “craziest” games in France’s history.

It was, but perhaps not in the way the newspaper intended. This was not like the 3-3 draw against West Germany in 1982, the 3-2 win over Portugal in 1984, the 1-1 draw against Brazil in 1986 or the 2-1 defeat to Bulgaria in 1993. It was a one-sided game in which the weaker side, despite looking as though it could win for only about five minutes, somehow scored three goals.

France was, similarly, the better side against both Uruguay and Belgium, and yet in both Hugo Lloris was called into making excellent saves. The 4-2 win over Croatia in the final was like the last-16 game, a largely comfortable victory made to look more exciting than it was by the scoreline. France in that game, after all, hadn’t had a shot when it took the lead via an own goal from a questionable free kick, and it still hadn’t when it restored its advantage with a debatable, VAR-assisted penalty.

And yet for all the quibbles, the doubts about whether France maximized its attacking potential and was actually any good at the back, the major problem was the sense that it was never truly tested. Its immensely talented squad never seemed to play to its full potential, but then again, it never had to. And what that means is that it still has development to come.

World Cup 2018 Never Stopped Captivating En Route to Crowning Champion

As in 1998, there is an issue at center forward. Olivier Giroud did a fine job in Russia holding the ball up and creating space for Antione Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, but like Stephane Guivarc’h 20 years ago, he didn’t score. The emergence of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet back then allowed Christophe Dugarry to be pushed forward to replace Guivarc’h. Similarly, Patrick Vieira’s arrival in midfield gave added dynamism.

Whether similar upgrades of personnel are available is debatable, but the overall picture is similar. France in 1998 was a slightly stodgy and disjointed team enlivened by moments of individual brilliance. By 2000, it had become a fluid and exciting unit that did make the most of its talent.

If Deschamps, who was captain in both 1998 and 2000, can oversee a similar evolution, then history may regard France’s triumph in July less as a slightly underwhelming victory by a hugely gifted squad and more as the foundation of a golden age.

It’s not at all clear, though, whether Deschamps has any interest in releasing the handbrake.

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