Ah, to be French. Les Bleus barely qualified for Brazil, losing to Ukraine 2–0 in the first leg of a playoff before becoming the first European team to overcome that deficit. Then, a week before the World Cup draw, FIFA changed the way that the bottom two European seeds—one of which was France—were slotted; that tweak benefited the French most of all, as they were handed a relatively easy road to the knockout stage.
France landed opposite Switzerland, which only FIFA, in all its bizarreness, could deem one of the world’s eight best sides and worthy of a place in the seeded pot. And the lily was further gilded when the weakest teams from South America (Ecuador) and CONCACAF (Honduras) joined the group. As if they needed more help, Les Bleus won’t have to travel to the hot box that is Amazônia; all of their matches are along the coast.
Still, it isn’t just the luck of the draw that makes France one of the better bets to make it out of group play. Coach Didier Deschamps has used mostly a 4-2-3-1 formation that takes advantage of his bounty of attackers. Karim Benzema, who scored 17 goals for Real Madrid this season, settles in behind spearhead Olivier Giroud of Arsenal (16 goals), while Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribéry (10) and the similarly speedy and skilled Mathieu Valbuena of Marseille terrorize down the flanks.
The central midfield options—Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba, Moussa Sissoko—are strong, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is more than capable in back. France’s defending during qualifying was chaotic, to put it kindly, but there is plenty of savvy and experience along the back line.
The French are four years removed from a mutiny at the 2010 World Cup, when players went on strike mid-tournament in support of Nicolas Anelka, who was feuding with coach Raymond Domenech. Deschamps says he emphasized character in team selection (exit Samir Nasri), and it would seem that only another implosion will stop fortune from continuing to favor the French.
While Switzerland didn’t necessarily deserve a spot in the top eight—Italy had been ranked higher for most of the year—it’s not as if the Swiss are Estonia. Lost amid the public pillorying they received over their seeding was their consistent play under German tactician Ottmar Hitzfeld: His team hasn’t lost a meaningful game since 2011. With 21-year-old Josip Drmic up top and Xherdan Shaqiri, 22, Granit Xhaka, 21, and Valentin Stocker, 25, behind him, Switzerland pressures high with speed and youth. Behind them, an assortment of veterans—Steve von Bergen, Stephan Lichtsteiner—hold down the fort. Forget FIFA’s extreme esteem: This side is good enough to finish second in the group and give the French a run for first.
It’s likely that more South American teams (other than the hosts) will show well in Brazil—but Ecuador is unlikely to be among them. La Tri have some solid midfield options in Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia and Dynamo Moscow’s Christian Noboa, and attackers Felipe Caicedo and Jefferson Montero kept the offense alive after the unexpected death, mid-qualification, of leading goal scorer Christian Benítez. But the defense is far too porous for this team to be taken seriously.
Honduras plays its third game against Switzerland in Manaus, in the Amazon, and veterans Wilson Palacios, Roger Espinoza, Maynor Figueroa, Carlo Costly and Jerry Bengtson give them a puncher’s chance in that heat. Unfortunately it’s likely they will be 0–2 by then and playing only for pride.
Introducing: Ecuador F Felipe Caicedo
Once considered among the world’s top prospects, Caicedo joined Manchester City in 2008 at the tender age of 19. He never lived up to his potential there, or at loan stops in Portugal (Sporting CP) and Spain (Málaga). But now 25 and in fine form with FC Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates, he’s a big (6-foot-1), fast striker, who, given proper service, can carry Ecuador’s goal-scoring burden.