The French national team has gone from nearly co-favorites with Brazil to win the 2022 World Cup to a second-tier favorite alongside many others. Coach Didier Deschamps has had the unfortunate inheritance of two incredible player losses to injury, Paul Pogba, and N’Golo Kante, aside from having to deal with a disenchanted Kylian Mbappe, an imploding national soccer federation, and some poor results of late. For most national teams and coaches that awful scenario would spell doom, but this is France we are talking about.
Les Bleus have had an incredible run over the past six World Cups: from 1998 to 2018, the French team has won the 1998 cup, come in second in 2006, and won in 2018. That is a record that bests Brazil’s, Germany’s, and Argentina’s, to pick a few other cup winners who will be in Qatar. The reason for those wins has been the back-to-back generations of great players the nation and its colonies have produced. From the Zinedine Zidane-inspired side of 1998 to the Pogba-Mbappe one of 2018 and today, the French have had multiple world-class players per position.
In 2022 one team the French could choose to field would have Alphonse Areola as keeper, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Hernandez, Ibrahima Konate, and Clement Lenglet in defense, Matteo Guendouzi, Theo Hernandez, and Jordan Veretout in midfield, and Kingsley Coman, Wissam Ben Yedder, and Moussa Diaby in attack. These are not all household names, but all of them play, and most start, in one of Europe’s five top leagues, and they may probably be France’s second string.
The French first string is replete with Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, FIFA Young Player 2018 World Cup award Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni, Ferland Mendy, Benjamin Pavard, William Saliba, Presnel Kimpembe, Raphael Varane, and Hugo Lloris, to name a few of their squad who star and start in Europe’s top teams.
So now it is up to Deschamps to make things work—not an easy job given the issues surrounding the French national team, its administrators, and entourage—and get his stars to jell in time to substitute for the losses of their bigger stars and still manage to compete at the very highest level of our sport. Fortunately for Les Bleus their group progression is nearly certain and if the cup goes to form, they will not have a tough match to play until the quarterfinals if not the semifinals.
Deschamps, a career defensive midfielder as a player, has always focused as a coach on short-circuiting opponents and then on attacking them. But in 2022 his top-level offensive players seem to outnumber the defensive ones and both of his first-choice center-backs are going to come to Qatar having just about recovered from injury. So, he may have to take a few risks to ensure favorable score lines cover for a weakened defense that may allow a few opposition goals—not the coach’s strong suit. Similarly, with key players coming in at different levels of form he will have to shuffle line-ups more than he likes and substitute more than he might otherwise. Fortunately, he has 26 players and can use up to five subs—half a team.
The bottom line is that to be truly competitive, given his myriad setbacks, Deschamps will have to break out of his mold and trust his team to obtain objectives by following their instincts and not his exacting instructions. Papa does not believe the coach will be able to take the necessary risks or that the French superstars will be able to get their collective act together at the level they did in 2018, and sooner than later they will be leaving Doha for Paris.
Photo: Didier Deschamps, Shutterstock ID: 203021407, by Celso Pupo.