World Cup: Deschamps' critics are sharpening their blades as France hope to break 'holders' curse'

Heading into a tournament as the defending champions should signpost a certain amount of pedigree and quality, but at the World Cup that's not necessarily been the case in recent times.

The only country to get out of their group as World Cup holders this century were Brazil in 2006. France (2002), Italy (2010), Spain (2014) and Germany (2018) have all fallen at the first hurdle in their quest to defend their respective crowns.

In Qatar, France will be very aware of what transpired 20 years ago in Japan and South Korea, and this apparent 'holders' curse' will be mentioned frequently until they secure their passage into the knockouts.

Of course, merely avoiding embarrassment won't be France's chief aim. Ultimate success in Qatar would see Les Bleus become the first team to retain the World Cup since 1962.

But nothing about France's preparations suggests that's a realistic target.

world cup stat
world cup stat

Changing of the guard

Of the 11 players who started France's 4-2 win over Croatia in the 2018 final, only Samuel Umtiti and Blaise Matuidi would be considered out of the picture in terms of national selection.

A core group remains in the fold; however, the central midfield pairing of N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba won't be available in Qatar due to injury, Raphael Varane will likely be short of match fitness, and Lucas Hernandez – who played left-back in the final – has also been included in the final selection despite recent injury problems.

Many might be inclined to point to France's production line of emerging talent as a reason for optimism – and to be fair, they do have a significant amount of promising young players – but over the past year or so the team have struggled to adapt to the changes forced upon head coach Didier Deschamps.

In Deschamps' 25-man squad, only two of the midfielders have seven or more caps (Aurelien Tchouameni, 14, and Adrien Rabiot, 29). The defence is a mix of experienced options and younger talents, while the attacking group is a fairly established collection.

On the surface, there should be a lot of optimism around Les Bleus. Fifteen of the 22 outfield players in the squad are 26 or younger, making it a fairly vibrant group, but Deschamps has not been able to get the best out of them for most of the last 18 months.

So why would anything be different in Qatar?

Tempered expectations

There's an argument that playing brilliantly before the World Cup could be a sign of peaking too soon.

France certainly won't be worried about that being the case for them – if they have been peaking, then something is truly wrong.

Les Bleus head into the tournament with one win in their past six games, all of which were in the Nations League.

They narrowly avoided relegation from the top tier of the competition, with a 2-0 win over Austria on the penultimate matchday ensuring they avoided such embarrassment – though that was swiftly followed by a desperately poor 2-0 defeat to Denmark, who coincidentally are in France's World Cup group.

It was a pretty feeble defence to their Nations League crown, which they won late last year.

But even after winning that trophy, the outlook wasn't especially bright.

Deschamps has never been universally popular – even after Russia 2018 success – as many fans bemoan his brand of football or simply believe he's unqualified, and the knives were out after an underwhelming Euro 2020 campaign that saw them knocked out by Switzerland.

Les unpredictableus

It might sound somewhat obvious to refer to a team as unpredictable, because much of football is just that, but it would be a fair summary of France's World Cup history in the recent past.

For instance, since 1998, they have reached the final of the World Cup in three of the six editions (1998, 2006, 2018), more than any other team in this time.

However, there was also the group-stage elimination in 2002 and the farcical mutiny of 2010 – shooting themselves in the foot is something you simply cannot rule out for France.

France stat
France stat

That remains particularly relevant given the off-field issues there have been for France and the French Football Federation (FFF) over the past year.

Kylian Mbappe took on the federation – and won – over image rights; an investigation into alleged sexual harassment by FFF president Noel Le Graet – who insists he's innocent – was launched; Pogba was targeted in an alleged extortion attempt that he claimed involved his brother Mathias, who said the Juventus player tried to put a "curse" on Mbappe.

And then, specifically in relation to Mbappe, France's main man has been at the centre of vast speculation surrounding his Paris Saint-Germain future. While not necessarily controversial in itself, it's presumably the type of hysteria Deschamps would've been eager for his players to avoid ahead of the World Cup.

Nevertheless, it would still be a massive shock if France failed to get out of a group containing Denmark, Tunisia and Australia. Regardless of what's gone on behind the scenes, Deschamps has generally been credited with instilling much greater togetherness than some of his predecessors, so a repeat of 2010 would be unlikely.

Yet key absences, poor form, a lack of on-pitch cohesion and off-field controversy could represent a perfect storm. If France can successfully defend their crown, they'll owe everything to the one man many want gone: Deschamps.