Spain getting thrashed in their first match and going out in their second? Unlikely. Costa Rica beating Uruguay and Italy and qualifying first from Group D? Implausible. An Australian scoring the goal of the tournament so far? Maybe if he used a cricket bat! France looking organised and interested? No chance! Since they were crowned world and European champions in 2002, Les Bleus record at major tournaments has served only to provide England fans with the line ‘at least we weren’t as bad as…’
In 2002 they became the first defending champions to go out of a world cup without scoring a single goal. In 2006 they were single handedly carried to the final by Zinedine Zidane and that ultimately ended in disgrace. Four years ago in South Africa, the divisions within the squad lead to industrial action being taken by some players against manager Raymond Domenech.
Domenech was in fact symptomatic of the problem’s surrounding French football. A man with a precious ego and a lack of genuine leadership quality at the helm inadvertently spilled his example onto the pitch. He had tried to claim that he had masterminded France’s route to the final in 2006, conveniently ignoring the contribution of Zidane, and he was lucky to hold onto his position after a disastrous Euro 2008 where it is claimed he refused to pick Robert Pires due to his star sign. Perhaps Domenech thought he was the new Arsene Wenger, an innovative professeur in charge of the national team. In the end he was more of a poor man’s Basil Fawlty.
However, from the wreckage of 2010 France have risen steadily. Laurent Blanc, a legend as a player restored some credibility as manager during Euro 2012 and Didier Deschamps has continued the recovery. The French FA have tapped into a wealth of managerial talent among their world cup winning players and Deschamps seems to have tapped into the mood of the French supporters.
He made a bold call on the eve of the tournament to drop Samir Nasri from his final 23. He lost his talisman Franck Ribery to injury before naming a squad but that seems to have worked in his favour and has complemented his decision to drop Nasri. Both Ribery and Nasri are brattish figures and are nowhere near as talented as they think they are (although Ribery comes close). Shorn of both of them, Deschamps has a squad at his disposal that is completely removed from the anarchy of four years ago and it is showing out on the pitch. In the two games they have played so far, France have blossomed as an attacking force and have revelled in each other’s success.
Against Switzerland, Karim Benzema missed a first half penalty but refused to let his head drop. His goal was just reward for a selfless performance where he linked up excellently with Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Valbuena. France’s fifth goal exemplified their spirit. Benzema, in a shooting position instead picked out a superb pass for Moussa Sissoko who was still marauding down the right despite it being late in the game and his team already 4-0 up. The third goal was an example of breathtaking counter attacking football. Deschamps’ tactic of leaving Giroud and Valbuena up when defending a corner paid off perfectly.
The signs that France were a team on the up were evident in their first game against Honduras. They did superbly well to keep their discipline and their patience despite the best efforts of the Hondurans to kick them off the park. In both games the joy amongst the entire squad has been apparent for every goal scored. This is a harmonious unit with a collective ambition to entertain.
How far they can go in this tournament remains to be seen. Their defence looks suspect and the two goals they ceded to the Swiss were well taken yet avoidable. Team spirit is easy to maintain when you’re winning and it will be interesting to see how France fare when they come up against quality opposition that can put them on the back foot. However, Les Bleus are now the joint top scorers in the tournament with eight goals along with the Netherlands and they are playing with smiles on their faces. If they continue in this vein, the fans will be smiling no matter what.