No Ribery? No Nasri? No Problem.
If recent history is any indication, Les Bleus will reign this summer.
Before you scoff and point to France’s implosion in 2010, let’s take a quick trip back to 1998. That year, Zinedine Zidane led his team to its first-ever World Cup victory, beating Brazil 3-0 in the final match. The win came just two days before Bastille Day, as if to underscore the revolutionary spirit of the French—they hadn’t even qualified in 1994.
Then, in true Jacobin style, they lost their heads: with Zidane injured for much of the 2002 tournament, France won the honor of being the first defending champions to go goalless in a World Cup. Les Bleus became Les Miserables, and the French were le sad indeed.
But fast forward to 2006, when the French came back with vigor and played their way to the final against Italy. There, they lost on penalties after drawing 1-1, and Zidane was infamously sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi. It was a disappointing end, to be sure, but one that had a touch of noir to it—dark yet beautiful, impressive yet heartbreaking.
And then we have 2010, when France fell apart in an embarrassing display of disunity and insolence.
So, I say again, if recent history is any indication, the French will reign this summer. They will come back in force with the strength and the eagerness of a team looking to erase its demons and be vindicated for previous sins. They will seek vengeance against their prior selves, and they will impose that revolutionary spirit on all who cross their path.
But wait, you say, that dramatic foretelling disregards the fact that Franck Ribéry has been injured, will miss the World Cup, and will leave a gaping hole in the squad. But I say au contraire, mon frere—the loss of Ribery may be the best thing to happen to the French since they abolished that silly revolutionary calendar back in 1805.
Ribéry is a undoubtedly a great player, one of the best that France has produced since the reign of Zidane. But he was also part of the group that imploded in disastrous fashion four years ago. Without him, without Samir Nasri, and without many of the forceful personalities implicated in that mess, you are left with a French side that is young, unified, and willful.
“It is a French team that people think has got legs, youth, freshness,” said French football journalist Philippe Auclair, during a recent World Cup Football Daily podcast for The Guardian. “And also, what we hope is that they’re going to make us forget about 2010.”
Forget indeed. The team’s final friendly match against Jamaica revealed a French side that few had previously seen: determined, relentless, eager, and free of any personality-driven drama that we witnessed in 2010. Without Ribéry, without Nasri, the team found its spirit and drove it home in a brutal 8-0 thrashing.
Sure, they were up against Jamaica’s B or C team, a group of players who had little experience on the international stage. But the match still showed what the French are capable of with players like Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud, and Mathieu Valbuena up front, not to mention Antoine Griezmann, who could be the breakout star of this year’s tournament, and Löic Rémy, who moves faster than that poor kitten trying to escape the romantic advances of one Pepe Le Pew.
The midfield is just as voracious. You need only look at Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye, and Paul Pogba—a deadly trio with enough attacking force to help the top three find the back of the net (if they don’t find it on their own). And in defense the French have Mathieu Debuchy, Patrice Evra (perhaps the last bastion of the 2010 troublemakers), Mamadou Sakho, and Raphael Värane. That still leaves a long list of worthy substitutes: Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna, Mohamed Sissoko—the list goes on, as does France post-2010.
The goals against Jamaica were splendid—Griezmann scored with the back of his heel, for crying out loud—but even more encouraging were the hugs that followed, as if the team knew we were hunting for signs of disunity and was determined that we should fail.
With a fairly easy group—Les Bleus are up against Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras—the team is likely to end on top and face Argentina’s runner-up in the round of 16. Given that scenario, it seems safe to say that France will make it to the quarter finals.
And after that? Je ne sais pas—heads may roll, but I doubt they’ll be French.