France are World Cup contenders but they also have a rich history of implosion

Kylian Mbappe of France training at the 2022 World Cup Credit: Alamy
Kylian Mbappe of France training at the 2022 World Cup Credit: Alamy

France have a formidable squad and high expectations, but they’ve also had bad luck with injuries and have a historical tendency to implode.

 

France arrive at the 2022 World Cup in an unusual position. The draw has been good to them and they’re widely tipped to reach the latter stages of the competition, but even though they arrive with something approaching an embarrassment of playing riches, their injury record has been terrible and with problems continuing to accumulate.

N’Golo Kante is reaching a point in his career at which he seems to be injured more often than he’s fit. He’s a huge loss but it can hardly be considered a huge surprise. The same goes for Paul Pogba, who still hasn’t played a minute of club football for Juventus since returning after his latest Manchester United misadventure.

But since landing in Qatar, things have only got worse. Presnel Kimpembe had travelled in the hope that a recurring injury that had limited his appearances for PSG this season might clear up, but he’s now ruled out. Christopher Nkunku has also been sidelined by a knee injury sustained in training and has been replaced by Randal Kolo Muani. Nkunku had been in blistering form for RB Leipzig with 17 goals in 23 appearances in all competitions.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Karim Benzema has now also been ruled out for the tournament after the flare-up of an injury, an absence that will feel like a bigger blow to anything that came before. It’s notable that Didier Deschamps has not called in a replacement for Benzema. The nature of the injury – a muscle tear – would seem to indicate no realistic chance of being back in time for the latter stages. And on top of all that, back-up goalkeeper Mike Maignan is out for the tournament with a calf injury and there are question marks over the fitness of both Raphael Varane and Jules Kounde.

Those with long memories might even be tempted to ask whether we could be due a repeat of what happened on the last two occasions they arrived at a World Cup having reached the final of the previous tournament. Their collapse in the 2010 finals was one of the most spectacular ever seen, with the team refusing to train under head coach Raymond Domenech as they collected just one point from their three group games. When they arrived at the 2002 tournament as holders, exactly the same thing happened. One point from three games and bottom of their group.

France played out this very peculiar pattern at Euro 2020, although they did at least get through a Group of Death that included Germany and Portugal before losing to Switzerland in the second round. With just one win from their four games, this wasn’t quite the same magnificence as the 2002 or 2010 implosions, but throwing away a two-goal lead and then having Kylian Mbappe miss the decisive penalty kick was some distance short of pre-tournament expectations.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

For all the issues they’ve had with injuries in recent months, there is a degree of formidability about the list of names that makes up their squad. For attacking options alone, they have Mbappe, Kingsley Coman, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Randal Kolo Muani and Ousmane Dembele at their disposal. The losses of Benzema and Nkunku are both big, but there’s enough quality there to absorb them.

A nation-sized question mark hangs over Mbappe, who hasn’t had an especially happy start to this season with PSG following the revelation that he now wants to leave the club, despite having been offered perhaps the most opulent playing contract in the history of the game. Mbappe has the nuts and bolts to be the world’s greatest player; there’s a possibility that he already is. But he failed to score in Euro 2020, and the sudden and unexpected loss of Benzema will only add to the burden placed upon his shoulders. How he deals with that may come to determine how France progress through the group stages.

And then there’s Didier Deschamps. The head coach has been in his position for a full decade now, and it would be difficult to consider his time there a failure, considering that he’s won the World Cup and the Nations League and been a runner-up in the European Championship during that time. But for all that, he hasn’t always been universally popular in the French media and his contract is up at the end of this tournament, so whether he remains in situ may well come down to how well his team performs this summer. Zinedine Zidane is said to be circling.

They should qualify from a group also containing Australia, Denmark and Tunisia, but as we’ve seen before when France do implode, it doesn’t really matter who they happen to be drawn against. But if they can win their group, their progress through the knockout stage seems relatively serene until the semi finals. Or at least, as serene as World Cup progress can look at the start of the competition. There may be twists and turns ahead.

One of the glories of the French national team is that just about anything always seems to be possible, and that it never quite seems certain which direction they will ultimately take. They could finish bottom of their group with one point from three games. They could win the whole trophy, just as they did on home soil four-and-a-half years ago. Both seem entirely plausible, especially when we consider their recent dismal injury record.

But for all that there may be many rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of another Domenech-esque meltdown behind the scenes, the players they have are fabulous and their route to the latter stages is as uncluttered as they could hope. It may take more than a handful of very unfortunate injuries to keep this team down.

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