France finally find life after Zidane
BRASILIA -- "Before the competition we were never labelled as one of the favourites but we've had good matches in the group stage," France goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris said on Sunday.
So far, the French have been a quiet success. After many European counterparts struggled, they look a marriage of both solid and spectacular. The signs are that this could be Les Bleus' best tournament performance since 2006, though that would hardly be a crowning achievement.
Since Germany 2006, France have suffered on an international scene which they once dominated. Didier Deschamps, the captain who lifted both the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000, is building a team ethic, after the disintegration and rebellion of South Africa 2010.
Save for Karim Benzema, who has excelled so far, and great expectations placed on the shoulders of Paul Pogba, the new Bleus are a squad without stars. The clear aim of Samir Nasri's omission was to cut down the ego problems that have dogged France, even in their days of great success. Franck Ribery's absence was a blow, but for a player whose form had not matched his excellent 2013 and who never quite shines for the national team as he does for Bayern Munich or did as a younger player at the 2006 finals, that loss has so far been assimilated. Though they disappointed against Ecuador, victories against Switzerland and Honduras promised much.
Les Bleus should know well enough the pitfalls of relying on one player, even if that man was one of the greatest of all. The eight years since Zinedine Zidane's retirement have seen repeated French failure to live up to the achievements of he and his generation.
That group suffered in his absence, too. France's Spain-like failure at the 2002 World Cup resulted from a Zidane thigh injury that absented him until the final match of the group stage in which he played on one leg. Without him, a team of purported stars had collapsed. New captain Marcel Desailly had misguidedly booked his family to fly for a knockout stage that they did not reach. Deschamps, were he a more boastful type, might suggest that his colleagues failed to win anything without him, too.
"The talker was Didier Deschamps, because he was the captain," as contemporary Franck Leboeuf told ESPN FC this year. "But Zidane was the natural leader on the pitch."
Following a home victory at France '98 that was something of a surprise, Zidane's performance at Euro 2000 was that of a true great and, for his 2006 swansong, he inspired the French to the very brink of a second world title, only for his infamous implosion to deny them.
"Zizou" has long cast shadows over the French national team. His final tournament was supposed to have been Euro 2004, before national emergency beckoned him back. France's qualification campaign lurched towards disaster until Zidane answered the mercy call and brought Lilian Thuram and Claude Makekele along with him.
Once Zidane established himself under Aime Jacquet in the mid-'90s, his coaches always made sure to keep his acolytes happy. Friends Vincent Candela and Christophe Dugarry received significant patronage while Thierry Henry, with whom Zidane never formed a close relationship, was almost always a shadow of his Arsenal self.
In Germany, Zidane's influence stretched far beyond that of Raymond Domenech, a hapless coach who used astrology for selection inspiration and would eventually lose control in the personnel crisis that torpedoed the 2010 campaign.
Beyond the Marco Materazzi head-butt that will always blur the Zidane legacy, a more inadvertent crime was his power and influence shielding how hopeless a coach Domenech could be. However, Zidane can hardly be blamed for the French federation's retention of Domenech after Euro 2008. There, France had scored just one goal, conceded six and were taken apart by the Dutch in Bern. And then came the Henry handball against Ireland that soured France's participation in South Africa before they even arrived there.
France's struggles without the Zidane stabilisers has not been a unique state of affairs. Once Michel Platini made the 1986 finals his last, Les Bleus did not qualify for either the 1990 or 1994 World Cup, and though they qualified for Euro '92, coached by Platini, they were a disaster in Sweden. It was only once Zidane's generation broke through that France could reassert itself as a credible football nation, beginning with reaching the semis at Euro '96.
Laurent Blanc, another big wheel of the Deschamps-Zidane brood, stepped aside after a 2-0 defeat to Spain at Euro 2012 that may as well have been 10-0, such was the distance in quality. Deschamps, not a universally approved appointment, soon stared down the barrel of a qualifying playoff humiliation, but a 3-0 second-leg recovery to beat Ukraine in Paris gathered fresh belief.
"There've been some ups and downs in recent years, but since the return leg against the Ukraine there's been a rekindled love between France and its fans," suggested Lloris.
And Brazil 2014 may yet be recalled as the tournament where France finally learned to live beyond Zidane.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.