France prove they've turned the page on woeful 2010 World Cup
From low to high, humiliation to jubilation, scandal to salvation.
Four years ago today, the French national team went on strike and refused to train in the heart of a World Cup in South Africa. The protests of 23 French players led by Patrice Evra, Franck Ribéry and Eric Abidal brought disgrace and shame to a whole nation. Today, four years on, the French national team produced one of the best halves in the history of French football.
They led Switzerland 3-0 at half-time today after 45 breathtaking minutes in Salvador, Brazil. Back in 2010, France scored just once and earned one point in three group-stage games (Uruguay 0-0, Mexico 0-2 and South Africa 1-2). Fast-forward to 2014, they have already netted eight goals in two matches, they are top of their group and have already qualified for the knockout stages. It is incredible what four years can do to a team.
Let's be clear here. Nothing will ever take away the shame that every Frenchman felt in 2010. Probably not even winning a World Cup or a European championship again. It will always be there, because it was unique. No national team had ever gone on strike before. No national team will ever do it again. In 20 or 40 years' time, people will still talk about it.
We reached the lowest point of the low that day. You can lose on the pitch, you can disappoint fans by not being good enough or not performing as well as you should. But you can't refuse to train, especially not when you represent your country in the biggest competition in the world and especially not when the whole world is watching.
It was shameful, disgraceful, outrageous and scandalous. Call it what you want. There was a feeling as well that we would never recover from it. That it would scar forever and that it would take a generation or two to rebuild on the ashes of South Africa.
It didn't take that long, thank goodness.
Four years on, the whole world is talking about France again, but for the right reasons this time.
France have suddenly become the dark horse of this 2014 World Cup. No one expected them to do so well and to play so well. No one had seen their momentum and confidence racking up since they turned around the World Cup playoff against Ukraine back in November (from 0-2 away in the first leg to 3-0 at home in the second). It has been a surprise to everybody.
Their 5-2 demolition of Switzerland Friday night was another warning to other countries still in the competition. This is not the team in crisis of 2010. The win tonight is also a testament to the great work Didier Deschamps has been doing over the past two years. When he took charge of the national team, South Africa 2010 was still very much in the minds of everybody.
He came in on the back of a disappointing 2012 European championship in which the French had made headlines for the wrong reasons again (Samir Nasri insulted a journalist, Yann M'Vila was unhappy to come off and refused to shake hands with Laurent Blanc, the manager at the time, and Alou Diarra and Hatem Ben Arfa had an altercation too). But Deschamps has sorted everything out.
He didn't call up the troublemakers. And when he did give Nasri another chance, he realised his mistake and never included him again in his squads. The manager brought a more disciplined approach as well as a clear direction in terms of football. He could rely on a good captain (Hugo Lloris), on a bright new generation coming through (Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann), on redeemed players he could trust (Ribéry, Evra) and on technical leaders who could lift the team (Karim Benzema, Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi, Mathieu Valbuena). He has also found the right balance in the team (4-3-3) and the right style of play.
Of course, France have beaten only Honduras and Switzerland. The cliché says that there are no easy games at the World Cup, but it's obviously not totally true. It's easier to play Honduras and Switzerland than the Netherlands and Chile or Uruguay and Italy. However, more than the result itself or even the performances on the pitch, what matters right now is that the French have the right attitude.
For once in a very long time, the camp is happy. The atmosphere between the players is great, they like each other, they play for each other and for the manager. There is no animosity, no acrimony.
2010 is not forgotten and it is still a painful anniversary. Nevertheless, France 2014 could not be further away from the disgraceful image they showed in South Africa. It is a fresh dawn and it feels good. By the way, the last time France won their first two games at a World Cup was in 1998. And we all know what happened then ...
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.