It wasn’t the greatest France performance but, by the end, it was an engaging encounter.
But they worked hard, fought for every ball and – in the face of an overly-pumped Ecuador side that needed to win and were roared on by the majority of the 73,000 crowd – did exactly the job required by getting a goalless draw at the Maracana. They now top their World Cup group for the first time since 1998. Ooh là là.
The game actually improved after Antonio Valencia was dismissed for a nasty challenge on the knee of Lucas Digne. Switzerland had gone ahead against Honduras – they would win 3-0 in the end – and Ecuador had to score. They went for it, and the match opened up at both ends. That no-one made the breakthrough was testament to fine goalkeeping and wasted opportunity. It’s a crying shame that Ecuador go home and the likes of Greece sneak into the last 16. But such is tournament football.
What is notably different between Didier Deschamps’ side and some previous French vintages is their team spirit. Pressing high up the pitch from kick-off against Ecuador, they are a relentless attacking machine, combining their undoubted technical quality with supreme physical attributes.
After the embarrassing shambles that was South Africa 2010 - when the team went on strike after a row between the coach and a player - elements of the French media and political class engaged in a somewhat distasteful episode of collective, racialised handwringing.
“Has multiculturalism failed Les Bleus?” they asked, as a team mostly comprised of ethnic minorities rebelled against the middle-class, middle-aged Raymond Domenech. “Are these ‘racaille’ really, truly French?” they mused in Paris coffee shops while the urban poor sat kettled in pressure-cooker banlieues barely fit for purpose.
“We now have proof that the French team is not a team at all, but a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia,” philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said at the time.
Noted French football writer Philippe Auclair wrote of how a friend phoned him up after the Knysna incident in a racially-charged rant, and how even he found himself briefly partly in agreement before checking his thoughts. It had got that bad.
Never mind the fact Domenech was a poor coach, with a personality best described as ‘eccentric’, whose greatest success (reaching the 2006 final) came solely because the ageing golden generation led by Zinedine Zidane dismissed his ideas and sorted themselves out; never mind that (the very French) Jeremy Toulalan drafted the notice of strike action alongside Patrice Evra; never mind the fact that the team which won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 had a more foreign-born make-up; never mind that the Knysna debacle stemmed from a personality clash between pantomime villains Domenech and Nicolas Anelka, and the former’s greater interest in playing to the cameras than managing his team. Never mind that there are always players who are d**kheads, but that this time the manager was a d**khead too. No, it was all the fault of those pesky dark fellas. World gone mad. Kick ‘em out.
Laurent Blanc initially appeared to have improved that fractured spirit, but he was – probably inadvertently (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt) – caught up in a race scandal when senior figures at France’s federation met to discuss how to handle the involvement of these naughty immigrants in the national team. Furthermore, Blanc was distant, slightly hands-off, more technocratic than motivational, at a time when the team needed a unifying, dominant force.
And Deschamps is that dominant force, as a coach as he was a player, as he is a man.
In a summer when France’s racist Front National (and they are racist, whatever Marie Le Pen whimpers) made worrying gains in European and local elections, Deschamps has seen through muddled views on ethnicity and national identity. All he cares about is ability and attitude, and – crucially – how to channel those attributes. You see, it isn’t about what they are, but who they are.
Team spirit and belief in a common cause are not linked to the colour of one’s skin, or the land of one’s forefathers, but a simple, emotional characteristic – love. And by love I don’t mean a soppy goodnight kiss or going Dutch on a cosy deux-pièces in Le Marais, but brotherhood, friendship, a willingness to go the extra mile for your fellow warriors, for your pals back home.
Those without that sense of kinship – the products of an increasingly individualist culture that has aped Britain’s post-Thatcherite obsession with self – are excised from the team, regardless of background or ability. Samir Nasri – who sulks when on the bench – was the highest-profile casualty, a fantastic player but more concerned with his own image than that of the nation; a footballing Nicolas Sarkozy, if you like.
Those shamed by events in South Africa were also given an opportunity to redeem themselves. The likes of Evra and the injured Franck Ribery were rehabilitated; new players were given the chance to shine, like Morgan Schneiderlin and Antoine Griezmann; and there was not the remotest suggestion that background would be a factor. Nasri was ostracised because he refused to compromise for the good of team unity. Better players were dropped by France for similar reasons – Eric Cantona immediately springs to mind. That does not make Nasri or Cantona bad people, just unsuitable for international football.
As my French colleague Laurent Vergne pointed out during the match, a huge difference is that Deschamps – a born leader who captained Nantes when he was just 18 – is simply a better man-manager than the aloof Domenech and the distant Blanc. He understands how the modern millionaire generation of players think, he knows how to motivate them, he knows how to discipline them. When he speaks, the dissident French listen; they believe.
Sometimes complex situations require complex solutions. England, for example, have serious mental and technical deficiencies for international tournament football. France have no such issues with available personnel; they just needed to control and manage the egos of the multi-millionaire superstars, to channel their individuality into a collective desire. It was a simple problem and a simple solution – pick the right manager.
This nouveau Black-Blanc-Beur collective may lack a Zinedine Zidane figure to inspire them to World Cup glory. Their joyous attacking flair is tempered by a faintly anarchic defence, with both full-backs pushing on and a talented but faintly haphazard centre-back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho. They may not go all the way, but they certainly have a spirit that the likes of England (who I reference because, well, this is primarily a British website) would do well to emulate.
The one that England cannot have, though, is Didier Deschamps.
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