Was it when left back Patrice Evra flicked a ball behind him, over his hopeless marker, to midfielder Paul Pogba, who then with one touch kneed a leading pass back to Evra for a stunning and almost (Evra was offside) perfect give-and-go? Or was it when winger Antoine Griezmann flicked a low incoming cross behind his back into the opposite corner of the goal to increase France’s lead to eight (EIGHT!) goals?
It’s impossible to say exactly when France’s fortunes turned around, but it likely began with the hiring of coach Didier Deschamps.
In the summer of 2010, Deschamps was at a high point in is managerial career, having just won Ligue 1 in his first season with Olympique de Marseille; Marseille had not won the league in 18 years. During the same summer, though, his native France could have used that leadership, as the country’s team was struggling immensely to come together during the World Cup in South Africa. Then coach Raymond Domenech quickly lost control over the French players. Striker Nicolas Anelka cursed out Domenech, and his teammates protested Anelka’s subsequent dismissal from the squad.
Afterwards, France legend Zinedine Zidane responded to the mess by calling Domenech “not a coach”. The nation that had made a run to the finals in 2006 did not win a game in South Africa, and had to make an early trek back north. A team with star players (such as Franck Ribéry, Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra) had embarrassed a fan base with much higher expectations. Yet Les Blues took a step in a new direction in June, 2012, when Deschamps became the country’s new head coach.
Deschamps has experience with France at its finest, when he captained the champions at the 1998 World Cup, and today he is preparing with hopes of returning to that fate in Brazil. In their recent games, Les Blues has looked impressive, if not dominant, having outscored their opponents 18-1 in their last 5 games, which includes a 2-0 victory against the Netherlands (granted, all five games were played in France).
The most recent result was the aforementioned 8-0 win against Jamaica on Sunday night. A couple of notes from that game should ease any French fan’s worries about losing the injured Ribéry, the team’s best player for the past few years: albeit against Jamaica, France displayed quality passing and off-ball movement that emulates the style Spain has used to win its last three major tournaments. This level of unselfishness and cohesion shows that France is a balanced team that will not rely so much on single-player dribbling to generate offense, thus the loss of its best player is not as important as it would be to other teams. Also, the two goals from Greizmann, who only played about 20 minutes as a substitute, show that he may be a decent replacement for Ribéry on the left wing after all.
Apart from his playing and coaching experience, Deschamps seems, to me, a capable leader for the World Cup because of his boldness, specifically in keeping midfielder Samir Nasri out of the final squad; with as much young French talent that is in the world today, everyone knew Deschamps would have to make a difficult choice to leave certain players out. But very few expected that Nasri would be one of those players, as the Manchester City star has made 41 appearances for France and is only 26. Yet as surprising as Nasri’s omission was, Deschamps made the right call; Nasri’s teammates disliked him, and, according to the coach, the midfielder felt entitled to a starting spot on a French team with a collection of able midfielders, such as Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Valbuena, Blaise Matuidi, and Pogba. France doesn’t need Nasri.
This team has players at every position who play on the top teams in the top leagues in the top world. It’s in a group with much less proven teams (Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras). Along with Argentina and Belgium, France will have the easiest time getting out of its group and into round of 16, which must be refreshing for French fans to read after the team’s scandalous schism in 2010.
Yet now the French Football Federation (or as I call it, the Trip Eff’s) can put South Africa behind, because Brazil is looking bright. Due to the sun, yes, but figuratively too.