A team in touch with reality

Priyansh | Updated on July 20, 2018 Published on July 20, 2018

The right mix: The World Cup-winning French side is one everyone can get behind; its diversity and humility are its plus   -  REUTERS

Victory rested with the side that allowed its strengths to flourish while denying itself the poisoned chalice of vanity

Stade de France is far away from the centre of Paris, but it is never far from the minds of the French. The elliptical edifice was the site of France’s first World Cup triumph in 1998; it was also one of the targets of a terror attack in 2015. A few months later, it was the stage on which the national team lost to Portugal in the European Championship final.

Twenty years ago, the stadium hosted one of French football’s most dramatic nights. Before a dazed Ronaldo and the soaring Zinedine Zidane faced off in the final, we were paid a visit by football’s potential for the ridiculous. Right-back Lillian Thuram had never scored for France before its World Cup semifinal against Croatia at the Stade de France; he did not score for Les Bleus ever after that. But on that fateful night, France found an unlikely saviour in Thuram as he struck the ball twice with sweet venom to revive the country’s flagging hopes.

Last Sunday at the Luzhniki in Moscow, that night of heady drama dominated conversations. The setting had changed, but Croatia stood in France’s way again. The Croats were the darlings of those who have a Pavlovian inclination for the underdog. But for France, this was an opportunity to move on from the shadow of 1998.

It was also a chance to establish new sites of memory. French football could not continue to merely look back fondly at Stade de France and all it signifies. The World Cup triumph in 1998 was an assertion of multiculturalism, a subject despised in politics and society then, but has since become an overused trope. New times demanded new narratives.

Didier Deschamps, captain of the winning team in 1998, is acutely aware of the cultural currency associated with that victory. France came close to repeating the achievement eight years later in Germany, but Zidane’s headbutt in the final set a trend of self-destruction; it is not to suggest he was responsible for the serious indiscipline that was wrought in the following years.

Matters came to a head at the 2010 World Cup when a players’ revolt resulted in the country’s humiliating group-stage exit. The team’s image became that of a bratty national side, and those like Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema were painted as a generation of players who were just too selfish.

When Deschamps took charge as manager from his World Cup-winning teammate Laurent Blanc in 2012, Les Bleus’ public standing was at a historic low. The manager’s job required someone who would be able to demand the players’ respect. But until the World Cup, Deschamps had many detractors. The team’s image had been overhauled, but doubts persisted over his ability to bring the best out of the players.

The 2016 defeat in the Euro final particularly rankled. It was supposed to be France’s rightful coronation against an unfancied Portugal, but an inhibited performance meant that the catharsis of a nation rocked by recent terrorist attacks would not come to pass.

The defeat put a lid on hopes when France arrived in Russia. Deschamps had supposedly revived Les Bleus, but it would have to be seen to be believed. The manager had been particularly ruthless. A spot in the final of Euros was no mean achievement, but Deschamps chose only nine from that squad for the World Cup. That brought a faster team to the tournament; a side that could be devastating on counter-attacks. The stars were expected to be more decisive.

Nobody symbolised this shift better than Kylian Mbappe — the best young player of the World Cup. With four goals in the tournament and countless imaginative interventions, the teenager’s confidence was reflective of an assured side. After the win, Deschamps was keen to underscore the comeback victory over Argentina in the round of 16. It was the turning point, one which brought back self-belief into the side. Mbappe, of course, had put in a man-of-the-match performance that day.

The Paris Saint-Germain star scored in the final too and, just like 20 years ago, Croatia’s impressive threat was neutralised by seizing the moment. This was a French team that understood the demands of the World Cup in Russia better than any other. This tournament was not for a country in thrall of its football ideals; no team, after all, had so much quality that it could dictate how its opponent would play. Instead, victories rested with the side that allowed its strengths to flourish while denying itself the poisoned chalice of vanity. Deschamps, as player and coach, has epitomised that belief for years.

In this victory, France could celebrate a team that was in touch with reality. In N’Golo Kante, Les Bleus had a selfless presence in midfield who would cover more ground and run more intelligently than everyone else on the pitch. Kante’s insistence on staying in the background was complemented by the urbane defender Raphael Varane, who is more likely to be found reading John Maynard Keynes than throwing a hissy fit on the training pitch. In his presence, the French defence remained intact against the threats of Uruguay and Belgium.

A World Cup triumph is an achievement in itself, but the likeability of this French squad was behind the strong acclamation from the public. This is a side everyone can get behind; its diversity and humility are its plus. This current group of footballers still faces the same questions of race and culture, but their talent and success have become forceful answers. France, world champions yet again, can look straight into the future.

Priyansh is an independent writer based in Delhi. He was in Russia for the World Cup

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Published on July 20, 2018
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