Being on top of the world is a second-to-none feeling. Being a champion allows a team to be respected as the best, and the sense of pride and achievement that comes along with it is unparalleled. However, many will tell you that being on top is also a position of high vulnerability. When you are the best, you have a target on your back; the plunge to the bottom seems daunting…and sometimes inevitable. The French National Team was arguably the world’s most dominant unit between 1998 and 2006. During this time, France reached two World Cup finals, winning the tournament in 1998. In addition to this magnificent triumph, they won the Euro Cup in 2000 and two Confederations Cup tournaments. Stars like Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira led a talented group of French players that took over football on both the club level and international level. Fame and glory was embedded within the culture of Les Bleus, but the team’s fate took a devastating turn after the 2006 World Cup Final.
The game stood at a draw of 1-1 in extra time, and with a penalty shootout on its way, France would have liked their chances against Italy for the title, but things took a turn for the worst. After Italy’s Marco Materazzi muttered some words in the direction of Zidane, the French captain responded in a manner that left the whole world in shock. Zidane jogged a few steps ahead of Materazzi, turned around, and butted his head straight into the chest of the Italian. Zidane was shown a red card and sent off. That red card was not only a ticket for Zidane to exit the field, but a ticket that took France directly out of the world-football powerhouse conversation for years to come. The entire world was hoping that a legend would close out his career at the top that day. Instead, France’s leader left the field in embarrassing fashion. Though he was insulted, he responded with emotion; individual ego that superseded the team’s desire to be the best. A dejected squad was dragged down for the rest of the fixture. As Zidane exited the field, he walked right past the World Cup trophy; the moment when France lost its grip on it.
France not only missed their expert penalty taker; they fell apart in the most important moment of the entire tournament, and maybe in the teams’ history. Italy triumphed in a game that felt like a tragedy to many. ‘It should not have ended that way,’ many thought; it was a sour finish to a brilliant run. France’s dream of being the best team in the world – the dream that every country aspires to one day achieve – died that day. Another World Cup win would have made them immortals of the era. Yet, that dream became lifeless, and then came the inevitable fall of Les Bleus. The French team capitulated in a series of events that was worse than a nightmare. Their decline officially began with the 2008 European Cup. With a chance to respond to their last major defeat, and their backs against the wall, France performed terribly. They were eliminated in the group stage of the competition, losing in convincing fashion to both Italy and the Netherlands. Les Bleus finished the group in dead last and had a goal differential of -5 in the three games. Then came a shaky qualifying campaign, where France eventually had to settle for a playoff to even get to the World Cup. In the playoff against Ireland, France barely survived, winning 2-1 on aggregate on a deciding goal surrounded with controversy. Henry’s handball failed to be called, thus allowing him to set up William Gallas for the winning score.
Amidst all of the controversy, France still had a chance to prove that they were capable of being a football powerhouse. At the 2010 World Cup, France was favored to win a group that included Mexico, Uruguay and South Africa. Yet, the tournament soon became the event where the world witnessed the disaster that was French football. The team filled with talented superstars paled in comparison to the countries in their group, and finished last. They scored just one goal the entire tournament, and were embarrassed by Mexico and South Africa. However, the on-field failures seemed to be overshadowed by the off-field issues. Nicolas Anelka reportedly cursed out manager Raymond Domenech and was sent home. The star player losing his professionalism set off a chain of events in the French dressing room; mutiny began and the players who supported Anelka went on strike.
The French players refused to train, and Domenech was forced to state to the press that his team no longer desired to compete in the tournament. France had hit rock bottom. Individual veteran egos had once again distracted them from what was important. To make matters worse, France’s two most accomplished players at the time, Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery, were involved in an underage prostitution scandal. It seemed a joke at this point; France was the laughing stock of sports, and they seemingly could not do anything right. The French no longer had their backs against the wall; they were buried six feet under and the image of the team was tarnished. In September of 2010, the team fell to its lowest ever FIFA World Ranking (27).
This is where the redemption story starts. French soccer took a stand and handed lengthy bans to players that they saw as detrimental to the team’s dynamic. The savior, however, who truly led France out of the storm, was their new head coach: Didier Deschamps. Deschamps started his campaign with some unpopular, but very effective moves. He started promoting younger players in place of many veteran, high-quality players. Deschamps rejuvenated the team with young, talented roster who were all eager to represent their country. To him, the talent was not the issue. He was more concerned with the dignity and image of French football. He made it clear that no matter how talented a player was, playing for France meant that you were part of a family and that the game never revolves around the talent of one single man. He brought unity and a sense of togetherness back into the squad that seemed so distant from the French team in recent times. Younger stars like Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud shined under his coaching tenure, not only as footballing stars, but as Frenchmen who were playing for the spirit of their country.
Deschamps’ first test was the 2012 European Cup. France was a young team that showed some promise and had made it to the quarterfinals, where they lost to the eventual champions in Spain. A quarterfinal appearance in the European Cup was not a major accomplishment, but it showed signs that France was headed in the right direction. France played well in World Cup qualifying and in the years leading up to the 2014 World Cup, they displayed some of their best football in years. The 2014 World Cup showcased France’s brilliance as they made it to the quarterfinals and lost to the eventual champions, Germany, by a score of 1-0. The biggest validation of France’s potential came at the 2016 European Cup. France turned in a dominating performance at the tournament in which many stars were born. Dimitri Payet shocked the world with his fantastic control of the game, drawing comparisons to the great Zidane. Pogba and Griezmann also shined and let the world know that they were two of the best players at their positions. Pogba drew comparisons to France’s great Vieira, while Griezmann won player of the tournament. However, the biggest sign that the French process had worked was Olivier Giroud. Giroud was given a spot in place of star player Karim Benzema, in a move that was heavily unpopular with French fans. Benzema had continued to be involved in serious issues off of the pitch and simply could not keep his head straight. Deschamps showed that he cared about the team, not about the favor of any individual. He knew that Giroud was a countryman willing to play for his nation and he knew that Giroud wanted to prove that he belongs.
That semifinal victory over Germany in the 2016 European Cup was a sign that France was back. They were a world football power once again. Beating an experienced Germany side that many regarded as the best in the world showed the potential of this team. The French not only avenged their defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup, they had also avenged all of the sorrows that they had endured for the past few years. The Blues would go on to dominate the final, but lose to Portugal in one of the most shocking upsets of the year. They lost by a goal in extra time in a match where they dominated. The French players were distraught because it was their tournament to lose. The delightful mood among the young French players seemed to have completely died after the match; it felt like the 2006 World Cup Final defeat. The pain was visible, and just like the defeat to Italy, the moment felt incomplete. It should not have ended this way.
This time, with a team filled with young and promising star players, France picked itself up. This team knew that it had to look forward and continued to fight. The players brushed themselves off and realized that this was just the start. They have led an impressive World Cup qualification campaign thus far and have shown themselves to be serious contenders to win the 2018 World Cup. Players like Pogba and Griezmann are nearing the primes of their career, taking the football world over in the process. Youngsters like Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman have shown their promise with speed and versatility that is unmatched by players of their age. This time, the defeat does not feel as bad. This time, France can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Les Bleus is no longer a sorry excuse of a team, but a group of young, patriotic and highly-driven individuals. These individuals have no ego; they play for the team. They will continue to dominate football and they are here to stay. The 2018 World Cup is France’s stage to show the world that redemption is possible. They are going to Russia to show the world that only France can beat France, and no one else. Don’t be surprised if they are lifting the trophy in Russia next summer.