How Les Blues overcame heartbreak to become World Champions
Two years ago French football was on its feet. A European Championship final loss in the own country, as favourites, to complete underdogs. Nothing but a win in Russia two years late could stifle that pain. Gregor Kerr gives the in-depth story of France’s World Cup triumph.
A nation’s dream ended
The date is 10th July 2016. The scene is the Stade de France. The teams are France and Portugal but the former are the only ones being backed, from the stands, by bookmakers and by experts. It looks a formality on paper against a side missing Cristiano Ronaldo from the early minutes onwards.
It was supposed to be their tournament, in their very own country, after the embarrassment of a group stage exit in South Africa six years before under Raymond Domenech, as well as flat exits in tournaments in 2012 and 2014, a better chance wouldn’t arise for redemption than that night in Paris, in the final of the European Championship.
But they fell. An injury-time winner from Portugal’s Eder, coincidentally playing his football at Lille crushed those dreams. It was an almighty setback, one of the biggest in the country’s footballing history. The kind that would understandably take much time to rebound from. A nation had been failed of their crown.
Their response this year (more on that later) would tell much of their character and ability to learn and grow, as would also be the case with manager Didier Deschamps. Their spirit could be crushed, a mental block could be formed and the pressure could have been ramped up. Conversely, they could have learnt from the defeat, and used it’s pain as a source of motivation.
A second chance
Fast forward now to 2018, and the two squads have an entirely different look. The old guard of Patrice Evra, Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna and others have seen their time pass. This new collection of players had a vibrant feel to it, whether it be Benjamin Pavard or Lucas Hernandez in the defence or the N’Golo Kante efficiently patrolling midfield, with an extra year of Champions League credentials to his name.
All of those were overshadowed this year by a player little known during the failure in Paris. Kylian Mbappe had made his professional debut for Monaco just months prior and was born five months too late to witness his country’s famous World Cup triumph in 1998. As the tournament progressed, he became more influential and his importance to France was more apparent, with goals against Peru, Argentina and most importantly Croatia in the final.
Le Blues’ group looked favourable when the draw was determined around Christmas time. Their opponents would be an aging Australia side who required a qualification play-off win against Honduras to reach the tournament, a returning Peru who had failed to reach the tournament for 36 years, but ranked inside the world’s top ten. Their biggest challenge would be Denmark, although they had failed to reach the previous tournament in Brazil.
The first game began against the Aussies and finished with three crucial points and a 2-1 victory. But the performance was far from convincing, with technology providing an assist for both goals; the first decision, a VAR-provided penalty, appearing far more contentious than their second, which goal line technology confirmed as a Paul Pogba goal with ten minutes remaining. The French struggled to create and the low tempo, uncreative style failed to match the quality of their squad. Afterwards Deschamps was light on his team, insisting that a win was a win, and doing it by any means was better than not winning at all.
The next day though the players saw his brutal honesty right up close, not through shouting and bawling or playing javelin with tea cups, but brutally picking apart the flaws in their performances. Many managers would not change a winning team but Didier Deschamps took the decision to shift things for the second match against Peru. Perhaps he had learned from the mistakes of 2016, and put out any fires before they could develop.
In came Olivier Giroud to the team, pushing Griezmann further behind and allowing the Chelsea striker to become a focal point. Blaise Matuidi came into the left of midfield to tighten things up. The whole country collective took a big scratch of the head at their selection. Considering Giroud’s failure to make an impact at Chelsea since arriving in January, and Matuidi’s natural position being in the centre and not as a wide man, it was easy to critical.
It would be a lie to claim the result was swashbuckling football, but the improvements were marginal and slow. Kylian Mbappe became France’s youngest scorer at a tournament, as his solitary goal, a tap-in from a deflected Giroud shot, confirmed France’s place in the round of 16. The goal came from a slick counter attack, pinpoint passing at optimum speed and decisive at the most important time. Peru, as they did consistently in their three games in Russia, probed and looked threatening, but ultimately were toothless inside the penalty box.
With a place confirmed the final group match against Denmark had little meaning, and you could sense it from the way the encounter unfolded. With France home and hosed, Denmark needed just a point to progress, and thus the only 0-0 of the entire tournament unfolded, with chances non-existent and both teams delivering a spectacle worthy of being titled the worst game of the World Cup.
Nabil Fekir’s starvation of time on the pitch was a surprise considering his form for Lyon the previous season, as was the exclusion of Ousmane Dembele after the first match. It felt like France were containing themselves, showing brief glimpses of their potential without ever setting their big boys loose on opponents. It wasn’t captivating, and it certainly wouldn’t capture the imagination, but the French were through with little fuss. They wouldn’t have to wait long for the best of this side to pull through.
Passing of the guard
Hanging on to single goal leads would become a bit more nerve-wracking now that the knockout stages had approached, and Argentina were on the horizon. A conservative approach was probable, given the stakes in this tie and the presence of Lionel Messi. What followed was 90 minutes of balls-to-the-wall football, one team satisfied to open the floodgates up and the other happy to oblige, it proved to be one of the all-time World Cup classics.
Any idea of a timid start was tossed out the window after just ten minutes when Mbappe, as fearless as you will see a teenager, burst away from the centre of the pitch. Midfielders and defenders tried to halt this steaming train tearing through the centre, but the youngster just ran quicker, gliding away from opponents that had become mere mannequins. With each stride taken, the realisation of how enormous a talent France had on their hands grew.
Ironically, for such a rapid player it felt like the run lasted for an eternity, before the world snapped back into reality and Marcus Rojo swiped away the legs of Mbappe, a penalty to France was the result. Just like in the opening game against Australia, Griezmann converted. They looked comfortable, before Angel Di Maria pulled a strike from 25 yards to undo what had been a fruitful first half. It got worse after the restart, as Messi’s shot clipped off the completely unaware Mercado. For the first time, France’s backs were placed firmly against the wall and questions were being fired in their direction.
Benjamin Pavard, a versatile defender who spent the tournament on the right of defence, was finding his feet as the tournament progressed, despite a scathing assessment from the wisdom of.Mark Lawrenson in the opening match. A ball cleared by the Argentinean backline didn’t reach far, and a player, hard to make out at the time, instinctively slashed his foot across the ball from distance and watched it swivel into the far corner. It then struck that is was indeed Pavard with the goal, perhaps as jaw-dropping as the shot itself. It was later voting as the finest goal at the tournament, a huge leap for the defender who watched his country’s Euro 2016 heartbreak from a fanzone in Paris.
Mbappe then took control of the match entirely, placing a shot with pace into the far corner after a quick breakaway, then jumping onto a loose ball to roll a defender and slot under the body of Romero in goal. This match was all about him, and with Messi a fading figure at the other side of the pitch, this battle signified a passing of the torch. Messi had become human, and his special powers had been handed down to the PSG forward. A new generation had just been born on that day in Kazan.
No margin for error
The quarter final returned to a form of normality, as Uruguay awaited, albeit a completely separate style of team to Argentina. The stoic defending of Diego Godin, Jose Giminez and others dovetailed perfectly with the power and proficiency of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, as well as a snappy midfielder in Lucas Torreira. The approach had to be different for France against a side known for making games horrible to play in, and we saw another side of their collective ability.
The challenge was laid down by the South Americans. You try to attack us and see where it gets you. The game unfolded as many expected, it was tetchy, ill-tempered and very occasionally a piece of football broke out from the scrapping. France rarely had to break sweat for the win though, as Uruguay were uncharacteristically careless in defence. Raphael Varane may have gone under the radar as a key player for France, but Uruguay completely ignored him altogether from a free-kick as he headed Le Blues into a first-half lead. It was a moment of personal redemption for the Real Madrid defender, as it was he who allowed Germany’s Mats Hummels to score a header which ended their hopes in Brazil four years ago.
The second goal came with just as much ease, as Fernando Muslera dropped a tame effort from Griezmann, turning his head to see the Adidas Telstar ball slowly fall beyond his reach. There was no manner to cover the error, France had been gifted a howler. At this point Uruguay sensed the game was drifting without a trace, and with Luis Suarez anonymous, chose to play dirty, and France refused to lower to their level. Mbappe had a quick flashpoint after a diving accusation, but the team largely kept cool.
The midfield partnership was emerging as an interesting duo. N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba, both complete opposite characters with separate narratives, had been formidable up to this point. The former, a quiet, reserved character who is satisfied to cover the less attractive parts of the game and keep his place as a “player’s player’.
This contrasts entirely with Pogba who is the outgoing character in the team, often the one to leave his commanding voice ringing in the team’s ears before matches, developing as the leader of this pack whilst not being captain. That, combined with a “flashy” reputation and a enormous transfer fee makes him a difficult player to ignore. You could say that both bring out the best qualities in each other.
Two golden generations meet
One step from the final destination, two teams with a similar story faced off to determine the first finalist. France and Belgium both possess somewhat of a golden generation, the latter’s being far more obvious and covered. The difference being that France have been here before, multiple times, and more often than not emerged victorious. Roberto Martinez’s side may have had experience had club level with De Bruyne, Hazard and co, but Belgium had never reached this stage before. It was untested waters and that appeared true throughout the semi-final.
It was a tactical battle, few chances and both teams attempting to suss out one another. Belgium began strongly and Hugo Lloris made what was becoming the obligatory crucial save, but after that they failed to build upon a bright beginning.
As revealed in a documentary which aired in France last week (Le Blues 2018), defender Samuel Umtiti sprayed a dose of aftershave at the half-time interval and declared it as the “fragrance of victory”. Minutes later, his intuition was proved right, heading in the solitary goal from a corner kick. Much like his centre-back partner Varane, the Barcelona defender was quietly becoming one of the elite defenders of the tournament. By the time his glancing header sailed over to the far post, everybody knew his quality. His goal had France on the brink of football’s most important game.
For all of the attacking power in both sides it was the defensive focus which would decide this game. With Moussa Dembele returning for the Red Devils it allowed De Bruyne and Hazard to play further forward, but France’s deep block was too rigid to break. With this successful approach it’s no surprise that they eventually held out for their fourth clean sheet of the tournament.
Surrendering 61% of possession was a small price to pay for a World Cup final. Didier Deschamps played under the great Marcelo Lippi at Juventus, spending much of his free time in the Italian’s company, discussing systems and tactics with him. It’s clear to see the influence that Lippi has had on his managerial career, in terms of focusing on a stern defence and becoming a difficult outfit to pick apart.
The final hurdle
What went through the French players mind on the night of 14th July 2018 is anybody’s guess. Trepidation could be understood, nobody was quite sure if they had overcome 2016. Given that Deschamps seemed prone to errors at major tournaments, there was an element of the critics waiting for the error to come, and with a game left it would have been the nightmare time. Matuidi on the left worked despite doubts, as did the decision to start Giroud throughout the tournament. Despite every challenge thrown at them, France looked unflustered.
But none were more resilient at the tournament than their final opponents, Croatia. Coached by Zlatka Dalic, the former Yugoslavian nation provided the most compelling story of the summer. With a dismantling of Messi’s Argentina in the group stages, to back-to-back penalty shootout wins in the knockout phase. Their legs, by theory, should have been running off fumes in the semi-finals, but yet another added time battle led to another victory, coming from behind to defeat England.
Along their path to Moscow they won the hearts of the watching world, helped to inspire smaller nations and proved to be the story of the tournament for many. With 360 minutes played in the space of 10 days, the odds where overwhelmingly in France’s favour, although this Croatia team had torn up the rule book and thrown it out of the proverbial window.
France had spread the goals throughout their time in Russia but it was a Croatian header which handed them the lead, Mandzukic, leaning back and off balance, could only deflect Griezmann’s free-kick into the far corner. It was the record breaking 12th own goal of the summer, the most ever at a World Cup, and the first ever in a final. The stars must have been aligning that day.
Croatia hit back and Perisic hit back, firing beyond Lloris and a busy six-yard box on the half hour mark. They were never going to lie down, and this is where France’s mental strength, determination and character was in question more than ever. So frequently in the past at this stage the wobbly knees began to kick in and the doubts would creep in, they needed a sharp response.
The response didn’t quite come from the favourites, but rather from VAR, who adjudged that a handball from Perisic, minutes before the hero, warranted a penalty in favour of the French. Griezmann, despite a long, anxious wait, rolled in with composure, his fourth goal in Russia.
Pogba, who grew and grew during his time at the tournament, delivered a rousing message to the rest of the team in the lead-up to the final: “We are 90 minutes away from realising our dream, we are 90 minutes from entering into history books for life, and we were 90 minutes away from making France rock — even children, and their children, will know about this.” He told his teammates.
It was then fitting that after the half-time interval it was he who added the third goal, and perhaps the standout of the eventual four. When his initial effort was blocked, he was first to react and curl a powerful second effort around Subasic. Any comeback hopes were efficiently stifled when Mbappe drove a 25-yard effort just beyond Subasic’s reach, making him the youngest player to score in the World Cup final since none other than Pele 60 years before.
A shocking error, the only real hiccup the champions-elect inflicted on themselves in the tournament, came with 20 minutes remaining as Lloris, so reliable for his country, seemed to lose concentration and allowed Mandzukic to score a fluky consolation goal. If there was a time to get such an error out of the system, then it was with such an extensive lead.
Croatia pushed forward and quite possibly believed that they could have found the two impossible goals, but the relentless French machine did not wilt this time. Just like that, France were two-time World Champions. Deschamps became the third coach to win the tournament as a player and manager, Mbappe become the youngest winner behind the great Pele. Records and achievements poured in, as did the rain on a dramatic scene in Moscow.
The humiliation from 2 years ago had vanished. Those 23 men, and staff, would forever be associated with this success. Whatever follows for the young Mbappe, as high as his promising career takes him, this will always be the highlight. As his manager Deschamps said on the eve of the final, “Nothing is more beautiful. Nothing can be bigger, if you are a footballer.”