It’s time to look at hosts France in my Euro 2016 semi-finalists series, who were favourites at the start of the tournament, and so far are the only side to score five in game, against Iceland in the quarter-finals.
Results so far
- France 2-1 Romania
- France 2-0 Albania
- Switzerland 0-0 France (France finish top of Group A)
- France 2-1 Republic of Ireland
- France 5-2 Iceland
- Antoine Griezmann – 4
- Dimitri Payet – 3
- Olivier Giroud – 3
- Paul Pogba – 1
6 questions with ex-France Football, Sport Media & Canal Plus journalist Ric George (@)
1) What was the mood amongst French fans before the tournament – hopes/expectations? Was there an added pressure because they’re the hosts?
The French public had waited impatiently for their Euro for five years, but the countdown proper began after the 2014 World Cup. The national team’s performances in that competition offered real hope that as the squad gained experience ‘Les Bleus’ would once again be able to triumph on home soil. France were everybody’s favourites in part because they were playing each match in front of their own crowd but also because Didier Deschamps had assembled a talented and – very importantly – a harmonious pool of players. Add to that a first round which was never going to bear the ‘Group of Death’ label and it was easy to understand the country’s optimism. However, with expectations comes pressure. As the host nation, France HAD to deliver and as the tournament approached doubts were cast about whether they could go the distance.
Reaching the semi-finals was, more or less, a given. But the withdrawal of so many defenders, not least Raphael Varane, meant France’s vulnerability lay in their rearguard. Despite his varied attacking options, Deschamps incurred the wrath of press and public by ignoring the claims of Hatem Ben Arfa, who had enjoyed a scintillating season with Nice, and preferring the much-criticised Olivier Giroud to the popular Karim Benzema, who is being investigated over an alleged blackmail plot involving Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema’s omission was reminiscent of Aime Jacquet’s non-selection of Eric Cantona for his 1998 World Cup squad and was done for the same reason: to ensure togetherness – a quality which, since the disastrous 2010 World Cup had become even more precious. Deschamps knew how high the stakes were, but the confidence he had both in himself and in his players has taken his team into the last four and as a consequence transformed the nation’s hopes into firm belief.
2) How has the team progressed in the last few years to go from struggling in 2010 and 2012 to being tournament favourites this year?
France have come a long way since 2010 when its national team, and national sporting morale, were arguably at their lowest ebb. Under Raymond Domenech the side had failed to inspire while qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa that year, and needed a play-off victory – aided by Thierry Henry’s infamous hand-ball – over the Republic of Ireland to book their ticket. A draw against Uruguay followed by defeats by Mexico and the hosts ensured a swift departure from the tournament, but their first round exit was by no means France’s greatest embarrassment. That came at an open training session in Knysa before their final game when, in protest at Domenech’s expulsion of Nicolas Anelka following a dressing-room fall-out, the players downed tools in protest. The appointment of Laurent Blanc as Domenech’s successor restored some calmness and stability, but he was unable to lead France beyond the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 and he resigned as a consequence.
To most people, Didier Deschamps, who had skippered his country to 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship success, was the obvious choice to replace Blanc. Basically, he was a safe bet. Respected and not one to cause controversy he was nevertheless strong enough to make tough decisions and was tactically astute as a coach. But most of all he was a winner – and winning this Euros is what every French fan craved. As was so four years earlier, France qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil via the play-offs, overturning a 2-0 first leg defeat in Ukraine to win the return 3-0. It is to Deschamps’ credit that despite arriving through the back door and being deprived of the injured Franck Ribery, France reached the quarter-finals, losing to eventual winners Germany. He showed in his squad selection that he was as unafraid to call upon thirty-somethings such as Patrice Evra as he was bold to go with the comparative youth of Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba. Moreover, his team produced a brand of football which was exciting and effective and which, in turn, bred confidence. Deschamps knew that in nurturing that young talent while not disregarding experience, he would have at his disposal a squad rich in quality for Euro 2016. The French say that people like Deschamps are “born under a good star,” which more or less means that what they touch turns to gold. So far that is proving to be the case.
3) Apart from the Iceland game, France have been quite slow off the mark. Why do you think this is?
The answer to that is simple: Nervousness, pressure and fear of failure. When you are carrying the expectation of a nation it can weigh heavily on your shoulders. Having the backing of your own fans is a huge advantage, especially when things go well, but if results had not been positive then the French public would have become frustrated and ultimately angry. The players were fully aware of that, hence their tentative start to their first four games. Their initial objective was to qualify for the round of 16, ideally as group winners, which explains their relative caution in the first half against Romania, Albania and Switzerland.
The fear-factor certainly accounted for their first half performance in the knock-out stage against the Republic of Ireland, while one can attribute their second-half showing to simple desire and obligation. Freedom of expression comes from confidence, and confidence emanates from goals. Don’t forget that until that Romania match, France hadn’t played a competitive game for two years, so they weren’t used to playing pressure fixtures, where the results would have consequences. The reason they began brightly against Iceland was due to the confidence they had acquired from having overturned a half-time deficit against the Irish in their previous game, and because their opponents had already peaked.
4) Dimitri Payet seems to have had a dramatic rise. What’s his best quality, and why has he only suddenly come into the international team?
Payet is not exactly new to the international stage. He made his France debut back in 2010 on the strength of his performances for St. Etienne. However, it is only now that he can be considered a regular. Indeed Payet’s recall against Holland in March this year ended a nine-month absence from the French squad. Having sparkled in his first season in the Premier League, Didier Deschamps was under huge pressure to include him in his Euro preparations, but rumours circulated that he would overlook his claims. However, some things just can’t be ignored, and not only did Deschamps offer Payet the chance, which he seized immediately, he also had the good sense to hand him the responsibilities which he relished having at West Ham.
While largely unknown to the English until last summer’s move from Marseille, Payet has always been considered a player of immense talent in France. Inconsistency prevented it from being maximised before now, as did his deployment as a winger, something which his former coach at Marseille, Marcelo Bielsa – under whom he blossomed in 2014/15 – was quick to suppress. For Bielsa, Payet possessed all the attributes of a central midfielder, a playmaker. Yes, he could dribble as all wingers can, but he was so technically gifted that he had the vision and the skill to make a perfect, decisive pass. With his eye for a goal, be it from open play or from a free-kick, Payet has become France’s most-important player, their talisman. It is now hard to imagine their team without him.
5) Who is the unsung hero of the team?
I don’t know if he can be classed as such now in view of his goals and overall performances, but Olivier Giroud – whom I have followed since he was at Tours – is proving to be a pivotal player in Didier Deschamps’ system. In the run-up to the tournament he had the misfortune of being heavily criticised both in France and in England, being booed at the end of May during France’s friendly against Cameroon as the country begged – demanded – the inclusion of Karim Benzema at his expense. Days later Giroud bagged a brace against Scotland but it wasn’t enough to silence the sceptics. Nor, in fact, was the opening goal of this competition against Romania. But Giroud’s quarter-final double against Iceland appears to have won people round.
Certainly there remain detractors, but at least he has proven he has what it takes to perform on the international stage. Sure, it is easy to comprehend his critics – Giroud is not renowned for his pace, tricks or even his clinical finishing – but he has always scored goals, and his record at international level bears comparison with strikers of greater notoriety. While some of those have misfired during this Euro, Giroud has not. He has been backed publicly and privately by Deschamps and he has repaid that faith. Of course he could still miss three chances in the semi, but he is just as capable of popping up with the winner in the final. Giroud’s aerial ability makes him an effective target-man, and his unselfishness the perfect foil for Antoine Griezmann, who has shown how much more potent he can be in a central role rather than on the flank. One thing is certain: if Giroud had not already been operating for a good Premier League club, his Euro 2016 displays would have attracted one. And whatever happens in the next game – or two – his personal tournament can be deemed a success.
6) What do France have to do to win the tournament? Can you win it?