France need not fear the future, writes Richard Jolly, as they have all the ingredients to launch sustained challenges at Euro 2020… and the 2022 World Cup.
To the winner, the spoils. Paul Pogba and Benjamin Mendy marked lifting the World Cup by teaching Emmanuel Macron the dab. It was enough to wish England had prevailed in Russia just to see what fun and games Jesse Lingard and Theresa May could have got up to.
Yet the questions France’s World Cup victory created were less about reflected glory than repeated glory. The curse of the holders has become a recent theme, the way the previous four champions from Europe had then crashed out in the group stages reaching its apotheosis when even Germany, those paragons of consistency, went home unusually early.
Yet there is another parallel from France’s past. The side of 2002 fell at the first hurdle. The team of 2000, however, followed a World Cup win with a continental championship. They were arguably better two years after securing the game’s greatest prize. They became a generation team, a side who defined an era. Their successors have the chance to do likewise.
Hugo Lloris of France lifts the World Cup trophy to celebrate with his teammates after the 2018 FIFA World Cup Final between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium on July 15, 2018 in Moscow, Russia.
Image credit: Getty Images
France should savour parallels with the past. Olivier Giroud even exhibited a perfectionist streak in his Stephane Guivarc’h impression, ensuring he was the non-scoring striker by not even directing a shot on target. But Guivarc’h was soon swept aside by the fast-improving Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka. Giroud, after a far lengthier and more productive international career, could suffer the same fate.
Two decades on, the ominous element is that France boast such strength outside the starting XI that the probability is that they should get better. It only needs some of Ousmane Dembele, Anthony Martial, Nabil Fekir, Thomas Lemar and Kingsley Coman to realise their considerable potential for France to seem more menacing. The prodigy Kylian Mbappe is the striker in waiting, ready to make an Henry-esque journey from the flank to the middle at a suitably high speed. The teenager has already showed signs he could fill a void at the top of the global game which will be created when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo decline. Neymar passed up the opportunity by descending into self-parody. Mbappe staked a more convincing claim and in a manner that was more likely to charm than irritate neutrals. He showed how France do not need to embrace the possession game when they boast such counter-attacking pace.
Few can call upon so many fast players. When Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe are fully fit, Didier Deschamps will be able to upgrade his full-backs: going forward, anyway, and a cautious manager may prefer the defensive instincts of Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard.
Yet change is scarcely required. Only Giroud and the understated, underrated Blaise Matuidi of their final starters are unlikely to be in Qatar in 2022. Those who seem to have removed themselves from Deschamps’ plans, like Adrien Rabiot, could face lengthy exiles. There is no need to summon them back. They had the second youngest squad in Russia. If only nine of the Euro 2016 party made the 2018 World Cup squad, it is easy to envisage far more of the current crop being named in the Qatar 2022 group.
And if France contrived to be the first team in 48 years to score four times in a World Cup final while giving the impression they could adopt a more expansive ethos, the reality is that their players could give them more potency without Deschamps needing to alter his safety-first blueprint.
The 1998 captain is not a visionary as much as someone who built a solid side that won in different ways. That is no criticism: the same may be said of Aime Jacquet, his mentor 20 years ago, and if Spain’s 2010 champions had a very identifiable philosophy, the Italian winners from 2006 and the Germans who prospered in 2014 were simply the most redoubtable sides with the fewest flaws.
Spain and Germany sustained different sorts of success over several tournaments: three consecutive wins for La Roja, six successive semi-finals for Die Mannschaft. France will eventually have to combat the questions if loyalty can result in complacency, stability in stagnation but, after their no-show in the Euro 2016 final, they have already delivered answers about their temperament.
They have the talent, so future prospects depend in part on attitude and focus, plus the vagaries of knockout football. And, of course, the context. The 2018 World Cup was notable for admirable efforts from gifted sides produced by smaller countries, most of whom were eventually knocked out by France, but also the underachievement of supposed superpowers.
France fans celebrate in front of the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees Avenue after France won the World Cup final.
Image credit: Reuters
Predicting a winner in 2022 now seems a foolhardy pursuit – who, beyond scouts, knew much about Mbappe in 2014? Who saw France’s goalless, winless campaign of 2002 coming? – but if it may get worse before it gets better for Argentina, it seems reasonable to expect a German response, a better Brazilian challenge, an Italy team who actually qualify and a Spain side who do not sack their manager 48 hours before the tournament begins. Maybe England’s age-group excellence will translate into a senior squad with the ability to claim the major prizes; maybe not.
Yet if other golden generations, such as Belgium’s and Croatia’s, may soon be on the wane, France’s bring the promise of improvement. It all suggests Deschamps could do a unique double of World Cup and European Championships as both captain and manager. But the precedents mean a side who are making history have to fly in the face of it to triumph in 2022.