France can eclipse memory of South Africa with Germany win
A blank page of history awaits for Didier Deschamps’ team of late bloomers
France’s Patrice Evra was also involved in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images
One gargantuan challenge away from the Euro 2016 final on home soil, there are four members of France’s squad who know better than most what a successful climax would mean to the bigger picture of French football. Six years ago, in the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, Les Bleus were in disgrace. At the 2010 World Cup, in front of anyone on the planet who cared to notice, France combusted in a manner that stank the place out.
The players had gone on strike and in their final group game, en route to a wooden spoon group exit, they were gleefully picked apart by South Africa. A young and understandably nervy Hugo Lloris kept goal that day. Bacary Sagna toiled at right-back. Andre-Pierre Gignac started but was hooked at half-time. Patrice Evra, perceived as being in the in-crowd of agitators within the camp, watched on, muttering, from the substitutes’ bench.
Lloris, Sagna, Evra and Gignac are the survivors of that nadir moment, now on the brink of something genuinely uplifting. Reaching the final at the Stade de France would represent a significant leap in the revival of Les Bleus that has in some ways been ongoing since that South African misadventure.
In 2010, when everything felt broken, there was a need to reboot, not so much technically but philosophically. The relationship between the team and the fans was badly fractured. The public regarded those chosen to wear the blue shirt as stroppy and spoilt. The French team have had to work over the years to regain trust and support, and the chance to bring everyone together for the final in Paris on Sunday is meaningful. Germany, the world champions, are a formidable hurdle on Thursday night but France intend to give it everything to strive for the finishing line.
“Nobody can change history but there are some new chapters to be written,” Didier Deschamps said. “This page is currently blank. The players can fill it now. They have belief in themselves. You can’t fight against Germany in terms of the number of caps or trophies you have but we are here because we deserve to be here. We will give it everything we’ve got.”
Deschamps’s current collective may not be perfect but the fact so many of them have not had it easy throughout their careers has helped them to show France supporters a more humble, grateful attitude to their international status. Six of the players who have had key starting roles at this European Championship played lower-league football earlier in their careers. Some suffered rejection or spells where they were not trusted by their clubs. Although a cluster have been part of the elite development system since their youth, such as Paul Pogba, this is hardly a team significantly based on the polish of a Clairefontaine education.
As Olivier Giroud put it: “Adversity has defined this team. Several players did not go through an academy. Many of us came through a different way rather than signing a professional contract aged 17 or 18. I think this made us more resilient.”
When Jamie Carragher recently decried what he perceived as the negative influence of what he calls the “Academy Generation” on the England team, he lamented an environment where “life has been too easy”. The same does not apply to a core of the current France squad.
A young Giroud was sent on loan to the third tier of French football with Istres, told he was not good enough for the elite, and took a gamble to start again at Tours. There he became a team-mate of another player who had dallied with the third division in Laurent Koscielny. They did well enough at Tours in Ligue 2 to press on with their development. Both finally set foot in the top division when they were approaching their 24th birthday.
N’Golo Kante, who will be hoping to return to the team to bring his harrying energy to the midfield against Germany, was playing in the Championnat National (third tier) as recently as three years ago. The golden boy du jour Dimitri Payet had a stint in the Championnat de France amateur (fourth tier) after a false start to his career. Adil Rami spent a couple of years at that level and had a job at the city hall at the same time to make ends meet. Blaise Matuidi’s earliest experiences as a professional were in France’s fifth tier, playing with the reserve team of Troyes.
Lloris, the captain, suggests the atmosphere within the group before the Germany challenge is unified and positive. “The players are quite relaxed and focused on the work we have to do together,” he said. “We are playing against the reigning world champions. We are going to have to outdo ourselves to try to pull off this feat. I do feel the team are ready to do that. Something deep within us has been steering us from the outset.”
Deschamps knows this match will be the most tactically complex France have faced in the tournament. In preparation, they spoke a lot about Germany’s attacking shape and how that enables them to dominate possession. On top of that, he wants his team to go for goal whenever they can. “I don’t want to play this match thinking only about defending,” he said. “We do have the ability to score goals and create opportunities for players with different characteristics. That is exciting for me.”
A blank page of history awaits.