In Last Decade, France Lived Up to Reputation as World Cup Catastrophe or Contender

Talent has rarely been France's problem, but the decision of how best to assemble it to achieve a common goal is a different story entirely. Nothing illustrates that better than the 2010 and 2018 World Cups.
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This story is part of our series looking back on the 2010 World Cup and its biggest moments and themes with a decade's worth of perspective. For more, read about the lasting legacy of the competition in South Africa and the long-tail impact of Frank Lampard's ghost goal vs. Germany.

For the second straight World Cup, Zinedine Zidane was being asked to explain bad French behavior. Except this time, the meltdown wasn’t his. This time, he was as bewildered as everybody else.

The setting was Sandton, an upscale suburb north of downtown Johannesburg. The crowd crammed unsafely (the day ended with a near stampede) into a room at the local convention center had been invited to hear Zidane and former Bafana Bafana defender Lucas Radebe discuss their countries’ group-stage meeting the following day, along with an Adidas charity initiative.

But that wasn't why hundreds of reporters made the trip. They were there to ask Zidane about France’s 0-1-1 record and the player dismissal and subsequent mutiny that had wrecked Les Bleus’ World Cup. Zidane powered France to the final in 2006, only to get himself ejected for sensationally and inexplicably head-butting Italy’s Marco Materazzi during extra time. Four years later, Zidane was called out of retirement, in a way, as his former team's entire delegation seemed to implode.

Reporters attend Zinedine Zidane's 2010 World Cup press conference

Speaking over the constant click of camera shutters, Zidane vainly tried to steer the conversation toward South Africa, and the clinic for orphan boys he’d conducted with Radebe.

“I had hoped that when we started, I would have a peaceful—a quiet press conference. But apparently this not the case,” the legend eventually conceded. “There are two things that will be remembered from this World Cup: the winner, and the fact that the French team refused to attend its training session before the encounter with South Africa.”

France’s 2010 run may have been cursed before it started, weighed down as it was by a lame-duck manager, a spring prostitution scandal involving several players and, for ball-don’t-lie believers, Thierry Henry’s “Hand of Gaul” against Ireland. And there were frequent reports of leadership issues and cliques within the squad.

But the World Cup really went off the rails during and after France’s 2-0 loss to Mexico in Polokwane, where forward Nicolas Anelka apparently told off coach Raymond Domenech at halftime. Domenech sent Anelka home. A couple days later, cameras caught captain Patrice Evra having a shouting match with an assistant coach. The players—protesting Anelka’s dismissal and subsequent leaks to the press—refused to practice, and national team director Jean-Louis Valentin resigned. Even France president Nicolas Sarkozy got involved.

France was doomed (Les Bleus lost to South Africa), and so were Zidane’s hopes for a peaceful press conference. But as much as he would’ve rather been talking about anything else that day, he did make a noteworthy point. This fiasco would be remembered. And in that failure, the seed for a second star very well may have been planted.

Didier Deschamps, the 1998 World Cup-winning captain, was watching all this unfold as head coach of Olympique Marseille. As a midfielder, he’d been called “the water carrier”—someone who did the unglamorous, more anonymous dirty work. But he understood that work was necessary. Harmony and an unselfish division of labor were essential for success.

“I have carried a lot of water in my time,” Deschamps would say later. “But those buckets have been filled with trophies.”

He took over as French national team manager in July 2012 and set out to do craft a team that approached the game in his image. Talent rarely was the issue with Les Bleus. Past failures had been more about temperament, roster construction or some other intangible.

The 1982 team led by Michel Platini got to the semifinals in Spain, and may have gone further if not for the absence of stylish midfielder Jean-François Larios, who was benched as rumors escalated that he’d had an affair with Platini’s wife. The early 1990s squad led by the likes of Eric Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin committed one of the great choke jobs in soccer history, losing both their nerve and consecutive home qualifiers to Israel and Bulgaria to miss out on USA ’94. For some insight into that team, consider the fact that coach Gérard Houllier blamed David Ginola for Bulgaria’s winning goal so relentlessly that Ginola wound up suing him.

In 2002, France was upset by Senegal and went out in the group stage thanks to a suicidal over-reliance on players who won the World Cup four years earlier. Then there was the head-butt, and then the mutiny. After a trip to the 2014 quarterfinals and a silver medal at Euro 2016, it wouldn’t be surprising if Deschamps concluded that France’s 2018 World Cup destiny might be determined the day rosters were due.

“You need to choose the men, so you can build up a group that can go as far as possible. Then the players will prove me right,” Deschamps said. “We need to find balance—on the field of course—but also a human balance, because that’s so fragile.”

Especially in France.

Again, talent wasn’t the issue. Finding 23 men willing to embrace Deschamps’ controlled and somewhat conservative style was. Outstanding players would be left behind. This wasn’t a team that set out to wow fans or critics, or to redefine the game. It was designed to take control of matches gradually—to play reactive soccer proactively, to steal a line from Sports Illustrated’s 2018 coverage—and progress through the tournament. Players like Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Olivier Giroud would have to pick their spots and defer.

Domenech said, “Didier must explain to them that they will take the spotlight together, or not at all.”

It worked beautifully. France negotiated a gauntlet of a knockout stage, then finally hit fifth gear during the second half of the final to ease past Croatia, 4-2. Afterward, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Sports Illustrated asked Deschamps whether his team had a style or approach that might be remembered or imitated.

France was a disaster at the 2010 World Cup. In 2018, it won it all

“My greatest source of pride with this group is that they managed to have the right state of mind for such a tournament,” he answered. “There were imperfections. And today as well, we didn’t do everything right. But we do have those mental and psychological qualities which were decisive in this World Cup.”

He added, “This has not been done overnight. In order to get there … the most importance choices are made when we choose the 23 players.”

Griezmann, the man of the match, said, “There are many players who come from different places, but we have the same state of mind. We play for the same jersey, for the cockerel, for the country. As soon as you have a strong and united team, then it can work. Otherwise, it won’t work. I have extraordinary teammates and now I know that I’m going to be in the history of French football with my team. We don’t realize it yet, but our children will be very proud to have our names.”

The world remembers the men of 2010, and it’ll remember their counterparts from 2018.

No one is more keenly aware of that then Domenech. Speaking to Sports Illustrated shortly after France won the World Cup, he said, “[Deschamps] succeeded to make Pogba a group player, Griezmann a group player, Mbappé a group player. He made the team really a team, not an association of good players. That’s the difference at the World Cup.

“When he chooses his players, really with the experience I had in 2010, you saw that and we spoke about that. He knew that to win the World Cup, you can’t have players not in the group, not with the team. Even the substitutes. You must choose 23 players thinking just one thing. You want to win the game. You want to win in the team.”

Domenech, who has worked as a TV pundit while toying with the idea of getting back into management, took a ton of the blame in 2010 for failing to control the dressing room and for failing to command its respect. And there was a part of him, he said, that still felt Deschamps could’ve loosened the leash on this 2018 side just a bit. 

“We have a possibility to play differently,” Domenech said. 

But he didn’t miss the overarching lesson, even if he put the blame elsewhere.

“Every World Cup is a moment where we ask questions of the football of the nation. How is our football? And after 2010 in France, the problem was our players. Which sort of players do we have? And the answer was we have individual players. Nothing came to the team. Nothing came to the nation—just thinking of themselves,” Domenech said.

“So we have to change that, and Didier Deschamps built on that,” he continued. “We have to remember. He said to the players, ‘Remember 2010. They had good players. Great players. But they don’t play in the team. We must play in the team.’ And it worked like that.”