France looking in fine fettle
No matter what happens at Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro in France's FIFA World Cup quarterfinal meeting with Germany on Friday, its Brazilian sojourn can be considered a major success.
Les Bleus arrived in South America just happy to have made it to the party after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against Ukraine in their dramatic playoff doubleheader this past November. Their aim this summer was simple: try to reach the last eight of the tournament. With that now achieved, the pressure is off, and no greater expectations weigh the team down.
Didier Deschamps' men are free to express themselves against a vulnerable-looking German side and to possibly discover just how deep the potential is in this side.
"We're one of the top eight teams left in the competition. We won't let it go to our heads, but it's a great feeling," France's manager said after the 2-0 win over Nigeria in the last 16. "I'm very proud of what my team has achieved since the start of the competition. Can we win the Cup? We're in the quarterfinals, and we'll do all we can to make sure that we go one step further."
What a difference four years can make. In fact, what a difference only eight months has made.
Back in November, having lost the first leg of their playoff tie 2-0 to Ukraine in Kiev, the French were asking themselves whether this was the worst team their country has produced. Worse than the team that disgraced themselves in South Africa back in 2010 and worse than the team that exited in the group stages of the 2002 World Cup as defending champions without scoring a solitary goal in South Korea and Japan.
Now, more or less the same group -- with obvious exceptions in Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri -- stand on the verge of greatness. They already will leave Brazil considered the best team France has boasted since 1998, the year they hosted and won their only World Cup title. To say that their change in fortune has been remarkable would be understating it.
Carried by the momentum built up by the minor miracle performed at Stade de France on Nov. 19 of last year, Deschamps' team has finally laid to rest the ghosts of the 2010 debacle and their implosion at the 2012 UEFA European Championship. Since the fateful events of Knysna in South Africa, Les Bleus had been regarded as an embarrassment to France, a disgrace to themselves, their profession and most of all their country.
All is forgiven now (although not forgotten), and the French once again feel able to be proud of their football team. This is because after reaching their nadir in 2010, they have fought back by taking the long road to re-establishing themselves among the European and world elite.
In reaching this summer's quarterfinals, Deschamps' group can now be considered a true force once again. After the 2010 World Cup, the team slumped to their all-time lowest FIFA ranking of 27, but this time around they will rise from their pre-tournament position of 17th to something much higher and more befitting a team that has performed well in Brazil and won many admirers.
Perhaps more important, France have also laid strong foundations ahead of Euro 2016, when it will host the championship. The Euros will feature 24 teams for the first time, and the French now believe they can win the tournament on home soil, and rightly so. The two-time European champions have a young team full of exciting talents with a coach capable of keeping his players' feet on the ground while remaining on excellent terms with all of them.
Most important, France are once again in love with their national team after a number of testing years. The support that Les Bleus have enjoyed in Brazil has been nothing short of sensational, and for the first time in a while, "La Marseillaise" can be heard being belted out with gusto by the French travelling contingent through happiness instead of a feeling of obligation.
"I know there's an entire country behind us, supporting us," goal scorer Paul Pogba said happily after the win over Nigeria. "My goal liberated us. I'm happy for the side and for all of France. It's the best feeling I've had in my career so far. Scoring for my country, and in such an important match, is one of the greatest moments in my life. It's a dream come true to have scored in the World Cup."
The convivial atmosphere that now surrounds the team has enabled the players to once again enjoy themselves when representing their country. There is no longer the same weight of expectation that has crushed so many French talents on the international stage and created a discord between the supporters and the players. Now there is just one big happy unit, perhaps best illustrated by the family atmosphere that Deschamps has been able to foster and now surrounds his players.
"Impossible n'est pas français" (impossible is not a French word) is the motto that has represented France at this summer's World Cup. It perfectly encapsulates the new unbridled sense of optimism surrounding this team. However, should it ultimately prove impossible for them to beat Germany in Rio de Janeiro, it should matter little overall.
France should still feel as if they have won more than they have lost thanks to this campaign and head toward Euro 2016 as a thoroughly reinvigorated team.