France bowed out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage yesterday afternoon at the hands of Germany. With the greatest of respect to both sides, it was a somewhat dull affair for large parts of the game, with France themselves having chances to at least send the game to extra time. Their participation in this tournament went beyond just trying to win however, it was about redeeming themselves as a footballing nation after the debacle of 2010, and in that sense, the mission was complete once the final whistle went.
To recap quickly, France’s World Cup in South Africa four years ago was a complete farce. A standoff between then coach Raymond Domenech and striker Nicholas Anelka, culminated in other senior players like Patrice Evra and Thierry Henry getting involved. From there, the team played like eleven strangers together on the pitch, with the team exiting at the group stage. Fines and bans were handed out to some after the tournament too. From there many of the old guard retired, allowing this team to attempt to start over.
Honestly, France were never going to win this World Cup, but they were one of the most entertaining sides to watch during their five games. What this tournament did do however, is represent the opportunity for new head coach Didier Deschamps to mould this young and exciting team into a cohesive unit. Remember, Deschamps himself was captain of the 1998 winning French outfit, that did more than just lift a trophy. They united a country fractured by infighting as a result of the many immigrants who had taken up residence there. If anybody was equipped to takes on this task, it was Deschamps.
Qualification for this tournament wasn’t easy, with the French needing a playoff win against Ukraine. In reality though, the team had been steadily improving since Euro 2012. Leaving Samir Nasri at home was the next step, and while he wasn’t happy and some felt his flair would be missed, it proved an astute move. The injury of Franck Ribery just before the games began was seen as a big blow to France’s hopes of doing anything. The reality though, was that this was a blessing in disguise for the team as a whole. Ribery demands a lot of the ball to make things happen, and if reports are to be believed he is the type who can cause dressing room friction.
With Ribery gone, France began the tournament playing team oriented football that was lovely to watch. Getting other characters like Paul Pogba and Karim Benzema to tow the line and play for the team was another example of how Deschamps had created a real team first mentality within the group. It’s been said that France can be their own worst enemy at times with the attitude some of their players bring, but that was largely absent from the team, allowing them to get through the group stages with relative ease.
Yes Oliver Giroud kicked up a little bit of a fuss about not playing all the time, so Deschamps did his best to accommodate him and stuck Benzema on the wing. The experiment didn’t work and Giroud found himself back on the bench, but at least Deschamps had the bravery to try this. In doing so, he would have also kept Giroud happy, with even the Arsenal striker realising that he would be most effective from the bench. Their display against Nigeria in the round of sixteen was shaky to begin with, before they took total control in the second half.
Many felt going into the German game that France would have enough to beat what has been a pretty mundane Germany so far in the tournament (Bar the Portugal game). They couldn’t get it done, but there are so many positives to take from that game, and the tournament as a whole. At this point we should mention the French midfield, for it is something quite special to witness. In Pogba, Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye, France have a midfield three that compliment each other so perfectly, they couldn’t have bought a better three players to play together if that sort of thing was allowed. Pogba’s ability on the ball is well known at this point, despite being only twenty-one. He’s also impressive physically too, and can look after himself on the pitch.
Matuidi is the enforcer, but if you have seen him play for Paris St. Germain, you will know that he too possesses great ability on the ball. That side of his game may be overlooked, but his work rate without the ball is not. It is that drive which gives this team an edge in midfield. Couple that with Caybaye’s passing, and really it is a three pronged attack that is incredibly balanced. In future tournaments, it mat be these three who propel France all the way.
For now though, the journey is over, but it has been one which the team navigated really well. The team didn’t have the expectation of years gone by, and instead was saddled with the pressure of trying to change people’s perception of an entire footballing nation. France did that with flying colours, and for that they are to be applauded.