With a potentially world-beating juvenile squad that holds the cards to trump the best, France have arrived in Russia with the aim to conquer it. This is an account of the confusion and uncertainty behind their setup which might derail the Les Bleus off the track once again in the grandest stage of football, or not.
For the generation that has grown up worshipping the divine presences of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, their go-to memories when asked about their first comprehensible World Cup often involve snippets of the 20 bookings in The Battle of Nuremberg, Cristiano Ronaldo’s tears, Fabio Grosso’s celebration and Shakira’s performance in Berlin, before chronologically reaching the memory timeline consisting of Zinedine Zidane’s seismic headbutt on Marco Materazzi that shook the world of football. 2006 was in fact, a genesis for millions of twelve-year-olds who had dived into the ocean of the game of football which had introduced France as a formidable unit to them. They stayed awake late at night at different corners of the globe to get acquainted with the stars of the future and the passion associated with the beautiful game, which had reportedly infamously blinded referee Graham Poll into booking Croatian defender, Josip Simunic three times in a single match twelve years back.
Soon after the conclusion of the World Cup in Germany, Zinedine Zidane retired from world football which soon became a milestone in France’s footballing voyage. Since then, a lot has happened — exactly how much is for the history books, that’s up for debate with a disappointing group stage exit in 2010 World Cup and a painful outcome as the runners-up of Euro 2016. For the generation that is now a decade old veteran in the business of loving the game of football, France has always been a mention in the history books with names like Raymond Kopa, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane popping up, without ever having mentions of contemporary individuals. Didier Deschamps knows it well and he knows the pressure of guiding his team in Russia well too, having captained his nation as a player to their sole World Cup in 1998. The question remains of how the arsenal that he has brought with himself to the wintry nights in Istra will function together, being indifferent to their inexperience at this stage.
“Alright, alright, alright.”
— David Wooderson, Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater’s words might be what’s going on inside millions of French men and women around this time of the year, waiting for a show that would better their performance against Portugal in Saint-Denis in 2016. The air of uncertainty still lingers large over the nation characterised by their films, food and fine wines which burdens the second youngest squad in the current edition of World Cup, evident from their friendly against USA. An entirely fresh, new squad, having only nine members of the 23-man squad that went to the previous tournament, Euro ’16, is Deschamps’ ace in the hole, with young players just waiting in their boot rooms to break through.
In Dazed and Confused, the group of teenagers had to face a similar situation in a less global warming induced summer of 1976, figuring about their lives in one singular night, which can be compared to this one historical footballing tournament that puts players on an immortalising pedestal if treaded upon correctly on the thin ice laid by media and pressure. Going by Led Zeppelin’s song, half of the training camp would feel shaken as the competition itself takes the form of a Titan facing down on such New Gods, although the leniency prevalent in Group C (Australia, Denmark, France, Peru) might be an avenue of respite for them.
Sporting an impressive number of eight players eligible for any U23 tournament, France does boast world class talent in every nook and cranny of their footballing setup in their country, who are namely — Presnel Kimpembe (22), Benjamin Pavard (22), Benjamin Mendy (23), Lucas Hernandez (22), Corentin Tolisso (23), Thomas Lemar (22), Ousmane Dembele (21) and Kylian Mbappe (19). This troupe of talents form the basic core of the dazed individuals having to bear the responsibility of a decade-long disappointment, all still wandering around inside their cradle, in a supposed Linklater directed school-closing night meant for self-realisation and experimentation.
Conspicuously, from recent friendlies, the likes of Mbappe, Dembele and Tolisso have a case to make that well-coveted Les Bleus starting eleven which has rather been trivialised recently with the inclusion of Moussa Sissoko and Mathieu Debuchy. Aged apart in a difference of two years, the trio of players hailing from league winners from their respective countries have had a taste of success already propelling them forward with the hunger already instilled in them this year.
Le Moustique, or Ousmane Dembele, earned his moniker by being just too good with the ball at his feet, swarming alone on the defenders ahead with nimble feet and a lethal sting possessed in both of his feet. “It’s innate, it’s in my genes,” Dembélé says. “I’m just like that. I arrive in front of my opponent and even me, I do not know what I will do until the last, last moment.” The winger with Mauritanian heritage had a difficult debut season plagued with injuries with Barcelona following his €105 million move from Borussia Dortmund last August, but he looks ahead to breaking ankles in the remaining games of the group stage of the World Cup.
Then there’s Kylian Mbappe, the Golden Boy and friend to the ambidextrous “best young player in the world”, who does as much outside of the pitch as he does on the pitch, as he was invited to meet the Liberian president and Ballon d’Or winner, George Weah to discuss the future of African sport in February. His 23 goals and 17 assists following his record-breaking move to Paris Saint-Germain has maintained him in the limelight which he had harnessed over his league winning season at AS Monaco.
Still six month away from turning 20, Mbappe has taken on to himself the responsibility to replace the short-termed legacy of Karim Benzema who was born from a burst of light and had succumbed into a black hole after a blackmailing incident involving a sex tape. Donatello, as he is nicknamed in the training camp for his resemblance to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, plays with a directness and composure that’s only prevalent in seasoned veterans of the sport.
The emergence of Corentin Tolisso has been somewhat meteoric — from the reserves of Olympique Lyonnais in 2014 to a starter of Bayern Munich in 2018, his rise is largely owed to his own hard work and determination, which has actually proved to be threatening for Blaise Matuidi’s almost assured place in the French national team’s starting lineup. Tolisso’s unending sack of stamina and his boisterous approach in the middle of the park fit perfectly in that French midfield, which has been often been highly spoken of for its physical and energetic players.
Although this is where the disorientation may arise, if they let the occasion get to themselves with their overconfidence in domestic leagues, as excelling in international frontier is a whole new ball game. The very first outing in Russia acted as reminder of that very fact, as the Socceroos proved more than enough to dismantle the belief of the Les Bleus in stages of the game, nullifying the sting of the youth on either side of their talisman, Antoine Griezmann. Although young wing-backs in Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez showed promise at the back deputising in the absence of injury-stricken first team choices, Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy, it took battle-hardened additions in Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud, a technological intervention, and a deflection to secure France their win over the determined group from down under.
Doubting the young padawans doesn’t seem fair though, when the main reason for this ever-growing cloud of unsurity has its roots into Deschamps’ management and tactical decisions, where there’s still debate on the preferred formation — an adventurous 4-3-3 or a safe 4-4-2? Like the night depicted in Dazed and Confused, the high-schoolers felt betrayed by their own schooling system and blamed the authorities for restrictions on how they were supposed to live, as was the norm in a post-war and post-Nixon era.
The only job of the 49-year-old right now should be to formulate a system meant for cohesion and getting the team to play a collective game rather than depending on individual brilliance, something that Didier has in abundance. But that is not how games are played, tournaments are won and nights lived. The young generation is here, and their talent demand to be led with proper tactical nous to pave a road ahead to Luzhniki Stadium on 15th July, 2018. Moreover, it’d be cruel to not have a coherent game plan to incorporate Thomas Lemar’s flair for threading a through ball from the left-side of the midfield and fill the void left by Dimitri Payet’s injury in the Europa League final.
The number of talents that have missed out on the final 23 for the World Cup this year is a testament to the fact of how gifted this French generation is, who can build a core group for the next two World Cups to come. Exclusions of renowned U23 players like Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman, Kurt Zouma, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Adrien Rabiot to mention a few, highlight Arsene Wenger’s claim of France having a rich pool of footballing genes, which is a problem for the manager “to select the best twenty three players and then the best eleven” and force the rest of the world to maybe, accept it.
“Players have repaid my faith and I put the group above everything. Like every time, some players will play, others will not play at all. The most important thing is the life of the group.”
— Didier Deschamps, on his selection of the final squad for World Cup 2018
If the odds are in his favour, and the leaders in the team wake up and motivate the squad, then maybe, just maybe, the 1998 World Cup winning captain might join the esteemed company of Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer, who are the only two men to have won the trophy both as player and managers. But for that, this national side needs to react like an active volcano, waking up the mavericks like Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane, Hugo Lloris, N’Golo Kante and Antoine Griezmann, and shaking up in-form call-ups in Samuel Umtiti, Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin.
The story needs to be aligned with the ending of Linklater’s magnum opus, where the high-schoolers after a night of tom-foolery and introspection come out well-informed on how to proceed ahead. The diffident win against Australia doesn’t bode well for the integrity of the entire squad, but if there’s something to be salvaged, it’s sure that the young blood will respect the group and find a solution to proceed further as it both has the talent and personality to overcome the hurdles. All they need is some experience culminated over the course of the tournament; something similar to what legends like Patrick Vieira, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry had felt in a summer exactly twenty years ago.
It remains to be seen whether the youthful vibrancy emanating from Dembele, Mbappe, Lemar and others can bring about a change in the mentality devised from France’s recent history of failings, and hopefully in the mentality of the president of the French Federation, Noel Le Graet, who has set the objective this year at only reaching the semi-finals. The group should have only one question in their head now and act accordingly: why only stop at semi-finals? Because for the generation that had 2006 World Cup as their first comprehensible experience of the grandeur, they would surely feel ecstatic to relate to a team boasting a number of players who had hit puberty together on the opposite side of the world. Because if this is not the time and the stage to shine, to engrave your name in the history book for forever, then what is?