France robbed of Ribery leadership
The day after a bad event is always the most difficult and the most painful too. Les Bleus experienced it on Saturday morning: Franck Ribery didn't have breakfast with the squad. Instead, out of the World Cup because of a back injury and heartbroken by the cruel disappointment of missing what could well be his last World Cup too, he left Clairefontaine on Friday afternoon without even saying goodbye to everybody.
At breakfast on Saturday, it was obvious that something was missing. There was no one to do the childish jokes he loves -- like undoing the top of a salt shaker slightly so when another player tries to use it, the top falls in the plate and covers their food in salt! Montpellier's Remy Cabella was a "victim" of it ten days ago, but there were no jokes on Saturday morning. Cabella's revenge (although he wouldn't have wanted it this way) was to take Ribery's place in the final 23-man squad.
The problem for the French now is not how to replace Ribery in the starting lineup -- Deschamps knew it was very unlikely that the Bayern Munich winger would make it to Brazil so he had time to think about how to play without him -- the biggest issue is to try to replace his leadership on and off the pitch. Indeed, Deschamps has a few options with Antoine Griezmann or Loic Remy on the left, or he can choose to move Karim Benzema wide and keep Olivier Giroud in the centre. What he can't replace so easily is his relay on the pitch. Ribery and Deschamps have a great relationship and not just because they have the same agent. Ribery's redemption after 2010 started under Laurent Blanc just before the 2012 Euros but it's Deschamps who re-established him as a world-class player and France's leader. He has given him extra confidence, freedom and responsibilities. But now that he is not there, who will take on the role?
Among the 23-man squad, only three players (Benzema, 66; Patrice Evra, 57; and Hugo Lloris, 56) have more than 40 caps. Tottenham's Lloris is the captain but he is generally quiet, as well as being out of the main action throughout the game. Ironically, defender Eric Abidal would have been perfect to take over the leadership mantle, and that's why Deschamps brought him back to the national team in August, but he is not in the 23.
At 33-years-old, Evra is the most experienced player in the squad. He has a father-son relationship with Deschamps and is probably the player the manager trusts the most. However, he has had a poor season with Manchester United and with France. Indeed, his influence is not what it used to be for Les Bleus -- especially since the disaster of 2010 where Evra was captain and disgraced himself and his country. The wounds of that issue are still there and considering his current level of form -- even in light of his new contract at Manchester United -- there are doubts about his ability to handle the pressure.
For some reason, Liverpool centre-back Mamadou Sakho has been named the team's vice-captain by Deschamps. In terms of credentials it is a bit baffling and, although he was the hero of the playoff second leg against Ukraine with two goals, he has more disappointing performances in the famous blue shirt than good ones.
Benzema is France's other world-class player, however we saw at Euro 2012 that when he is under pressure and the one the team relies on, he struggles to cope. In these circumstances, the Real Madrid man often tries to do too much, forcing his game and the end result is often disappointing.
So the answer is probably that instead of one player replacing Ribery's leadership, the whole team do it. Collective responsibility is the way forward and each of the starting XI needs to do a bit more for the cause. Yes, Evra, Benzema, Lloris and Sakho will probably have a bigger role to play now, but none of them can really replace Ribery's influence in the dressing room and on the field.
It should be remembered that this is France's youngest squad to go to a World Cup since 1954. Ribery, at 31 and with 81 caps, would have been perfect to nurture this squad and look after the kids, so the space that he has left will be almost impossible to fill.
Off the pitch, too, life in Brazil will not be the same. Ribery is the one that livening things up; he is the joker, the one that creates a good atmosphere and always makes sure to involve everyone in the staff and the squad. Others know how to do jokes but not like Ribery. After the news of his injury, the whole squad was miserable on Friday evening and on Saturday morning. Not only the breakfasts will never be the same without him but, most importantly, life in France's Brazilian HQ will not be the same either and going into such a big competition, it is a blow that they may never get over.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.