France have to live with big expectations as hosts – but recent history shows les Bleus love playing at home. In the days when Michel Platini was the world’s most compellingly gifted midfielder rather than a blackballed bureaucrat, France swept to Euro 84 success on home soil, and then repeated the feat at the World Cup 14 years later.
Sure, they will need do better than at recent European Championships – they went out at the first hurdle in 2008 and meekly lost to eventual champions Spain in the 2012 quarters – but Didier Deschamps’ 23-man squad is arguably the best France have named since being crowned continental champions in 2000.
Will the fans get
behind the team?
Ever since the crazy Raymond Domenech era (remember him, folks?), French football followers have been at odds with their national team. It’s more than a mere lovers’ tiff – this has been all-out war, followed by arguments over the house and divorce proceedings.
To a degree, French players have brought this on themselves: after underwhelming performances and numerous off-field embarrassments, footballers now rank somewhere above perennially unpopular president Francois Hollande in the list of most unpopular dinner guests. In this context there have been legitimate concerns about whether a France team that will play its group games in Paris, Marseille and Lille will actually draw cheers rather than whistles.
Relations have started to thaw in recent months, though, which may or may not be related to the fact that the public has belatedly realised this team is actually pretty good. With the fickle French, it’s often about the results, stupid – so if les Bleus make a winning start against Romania on June 10, past misdemeanours will almost certainly be forgotten in record-quick time.
FRIENDLIES: NO FUN
As hosts, France have spent the past two years playing friendlies – and we’ve learned that this team needs the smell of competition in its nostrils to play near its best.
Last season, when Euro 2016 was a mere dot on the horizon, France’s stats (W5-D2-L3) showed the players weren’t that bothered; this season, with the competition coming into sight, the team has been far more focused, fluent and impressive. Their W7-D0-L1 record has included some impressive performances, and the sole defeat (to England) barely counted as it came four days after the Paris terrorist attacks.
Nearly two years after their last competitive fixture, France will be itching for the real action to get under way.
France are fearsome on the front foot. The quality of their forward line is illustrated by the players they could afford to leave out: Karim Benzema, Mathieu Valbuena, Ligue 1 Player of the Year nominee Hatem Ben Arfa, Alexandre Lacazette, Kevin Gameiro and Nabil Fekir (yes, the Lyon dribbler missed most of the season through injury, but that didn’t stop England picking Jack Wilshere, did it?).
The players named in the 23-man squad are even better: Dimitri Payet is in the form of his life, Andre-Pierre Gignac on his way to living-legend status in Mexico and Kingsley Coman arguably Europe’s best teenager. Olivier Giroud is more useful than his critics admit, Antoine Griezmann a Ballon d’Or contender, and there’s Anthony Martial to bring off the bench. Right now you’d be mad to swap France’s forward line for anybody else’s.
France owed its 1998 World Cup triumph to one of the finest back fours in history (Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu), but if les Bleus lift the Henri Delaunay trophy this summer it’s unlikely to be down to the defence.
Raphael Varane has been ruled out with a thigh injury, while Mamadou Sakho’s drug-induced suspension robs the side of a warrior-like player whose attitude inspired those around him.
The fact Bacary Sagna (33) and Patrice Evra (35) are automatic starters says a lot about the dearth of talent at full-back – are the pair really good enough to curtail the world’s best attackers? Hugo Lloris will need to be at his shot-stopping, quick-off-the-line best for France to avoid having an ugly ‘goals against’ column. Stacked with talent at the other end of the pitch, they may find attack is the best form of defence.
Michel Platini was 29 when he led France to glory at Euro ’84 – so for that reason, Payet gets the nod over the other contenders (Griezmann, Paul Pogba) here.
After looking set to miss the cut, he forced France manager Didier Deschamps to recall him earlier this year because his form for West Ham United was so sparkling that he simply couldn’t be overlooked any longer. The Hammers idol then posted such stellar performances in France’s wins over Russia (4-2) and Holland (3-2) in March, and again against Cameroon with a last-minute winner (3-2), that he may have forced his way into the starting lineup.
Payet has been in and out of the side for years, but thanks to his brilliance in England this could be his moment. There are already signs of him developing a smart understanding with Griezmann and he has the mobility, touch and vision to thrive behind and alongside a static centre-forward such as Giroud or Gignac.
As drooling Upton Park regulars would testify, he has the potential to become the side’s free-kick master, too. The most cherubic Euro attacker since Tomas Brolin in 1992, Payet has all the attributes to be France’s star man.
Didier Deschamps is the perfect manager to guide les Bleus through the ups and downs of a home tournament. He was the winning captain when France lifted the World Cup in front of their own fans in 1998, was still wearing the armband when the team added the European Championship two years later and, as a manager, has won trophies at Marseille, Monaco and Juventus.
Owner of the most glittering CV in French football history, he is good-humoured, media-savvy, flexible on team selection and immune to pressure. Expect the France camp to be a happy place under a man widely considered to be his country’s lucky charm.