To tweak the famous line from Forrest Gump: “France is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.” Les Bleus are absolutely brilliant when they are on form, posing a serious threat to the world’s top-tier sides. But too often they hit the self-destruct button—usually brought out on by bickering and sulking players who think about themselves first and the team second—and find ways to play down to lesser opponents. However, France’s amazing comeback against Ukraine from 2-0 down in the playoffs to qualify for the World Cup gives us a glimpse of how they can play, and that they have spirit and graft and can grind out results when backed into a corner.
Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Mickaël Landreau (Bastia)
Defenders: Mathieu Debuchy (Newcastle United), Lucas Digne (PSG) Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto), Bacary Sagna (Arsenal), Mamadou Sakho (Liverpool), Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid)
Midfielders: Yohan Cabaye (PSG), Clément Grenier (Lyon), Blaise Matuidi (PSG), Rio Mavuba (Lille), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Moussa Sissoko (Newcastle), Mathieu Valbuena (Marseille)
Forwards: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Antoine Griezmann (Real Sociedad), Loïc Rémy (Newcastle), Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich)
France has been undermined by dressing room unrest for the better part of a decade and Didier Deschamps looks to be the gaffer to put an end to it. Deschamps, a disciplinarian and a former World Cup winner in 1998, won’t stand for off-field drama. It should serve France well in Brazil.
4-2-3-1: (GK) Lloris – (D) Debuchy, Varane Koscielny, Evra – (M) Pogba, Matuidi, Griezmann, Cabaye, Ribéry – (F) Benzema
Group B schedule
June 15: vs. Honduras in Porto Alegre
June 20: vs. Switzerland in Salvador
June 25: vs. Ecuador in Rio
How they qualified
Through perseverance. The soccer gods were not kind to Les Bleus, drawing them in a group with defending world and European champions Spain. France took just one out of a possible four points against La Furia Roja, and was also surprisingly held to a draw by lowly Georgia. That set the stage for what turned out to be an epic and dramatic playoff showdown with Ukraine, which the French famously won via a memorable second-leg comeback.
A balanced midfield. Paul Pogba’s ceiling is limitless, Blaise Matuidi is the most important player at PSG not named Zlatan, and Yohan Cabaye’s distribution is top class. The trio represent a dynamic central midfield and are the favourites to start. With Cabaye pulling the strings, Pogba and Matuidi can take turns breaking forward to support the attack.
Centre-backs. Oh, how France must long for a Lillian Thuram or Marcel Desailly. What used to be a position of strength is now a weak spot for Les Bleus. Raphael Varane may one day mature into a world beater but his injury problems this year have stalled that progress. Laurent Koscielny’s rash nature won’t bode well in a tournament setting and even though he scored twice against Ukraine in their playoff, Mamadou Sakho was part of a porous Liverpool defence.
Players to watch
Karim Benzema: Benzema has his best season ever, making Jose Mourinho’s feline-related criticism look more ridiculous by the match. After previous failures, this tournament is primed to be Benzema’s coming out party.
Franck Ribery: Ribery’s inability to break the Messi/Ronaldo duopoly at the top of the sport must weigh on him. What better way to change the conversation than shine on the international stage?
Antonio Griezmann: Greizmann’s electric season has put him firmly in Deschamps’ mind at the right time. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him dislodge Mathieu Valbeuna from the starting 11 at some point during or even before the tournament.
Does Deschamps go for youth over experience? France is due to host Euro 2016 and Deschamps picked a squad with winning that tournament in mind. One has to think he’ll balance trying to win this tournament and building for the future—hence his decision to eliminate “bad influences” from the dressing room and blooding so many youngsters. With infighting plaguing team for a decade, it’s a necessary move.
Prospects in Brazil
France was handed an incredibly easy draw and it would take a catastrophic collapse, even for their standards, to avoid winning a group containing Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador. A meeting against either Bosnia-Herzegovina or Nigeria in the round of 16 is favourable but after that there will be nowhere to hide. If business plays out as expected, a quarterfinal matchup against Germany would be on the cards and it could prove to be too much for a youthful team. With one eye on 2016 and Deschamps’ future already secured, making it that far would be considered acceptable.
World Cup history
The less said about France’s collapse at the 2010 World Cup, the better. Zinedine Zidane inspired Les Bleus to win the World Cup in 1998 on home soil and to the final in 2006. Apart from a couple of third-placed finishes in the 20th century, however, those two tournaments represent the best showings by French teams.
• 1930—First round
• 1934—First round
• 1954—First round
• 1958—Semifinals (third place)
• 1962—Did not qualify
• 1966—First round
• 1970 to 1974—Did not qualify
• 1978—First round
• 1982—Semifinals (fourth place)
• 1986—Semifinals (third place)
• 1990 to 1994—Did not qualify
• 2002—First round
• 2010—First round
Algeria || Argentina || Australia || Belgium || Bosnia and Herzegovina || Brazil || Cameroon || Chile || Colombia || Costa Rica || Croatia || Ecuador || England || France || Germany || Ghana || Greece || Holland || Honduras || Iran || Italy || Ivory Coast || Japan || Mexico || Nigeria || Portugal || Russia || South Korea || Spain || Switzerland || Uruguay || United States