As shadow of Paris attacks linger, future of French football begins now
The laughs and the smiles have turned to fear and sadness once again. On Monday night, the 23 players called up to Didier Deschamps' France squad, along with the manager and his staff, celebrated Antoine Griezmann's 25th birthday at Clairefontaine -- national team headquarters. There was cake, candles, jokes, laughter and happiness. When the team woke up on Tuesday morning, it was a different atmosphere. Brussels had been the target of a terror attack, much like the one that took place in the French capital on Nov. 13.
The French players were forced to relive that dramatic night when 130 people died in Paris. When suicide bombers blew themselves up just outside the Stade de France, when Les Bleus had to stay in the stadium until 3:00 a.m. alongside the German team, desperately trying to find out if their familes and friends were safe. Griezmann's sister escaped the Bataclan, but sadly, Lassana Diarra's cousin was not as fortunate.
Tuesday was a brutal return to reality and a stark reminder of insufferable trauma. Most of this France squad have friends in Brussels or throughout Belgium. They all had a thought for Eliaquim Mangala -- who is not in the squad this time -- who was born in Paris but grew up in Belgium. With this devastating news hanging over their heads, France are preparing for their last two friendly matches before Deschamps announces his squad for this summer's European Championship on home soil.
Paul Pogba and his teammates will travel to Amsterdam on Thursday to play the Netherlands on Friday before hosting Russia on Tuesday in their first game in the Stade de France since that fateful night in November. Despite the events in Brussels and an obviously emotional homecoming, this will be a crucial 10 days for Deschamps and Les Bleus.
This stretch is the last-chance saloon for many to impress the coach. Dimitri Payet, for example, has been exceptional with West Ham this season but is yet to impress Deschamps. His attitude off the pitch and his performances for France have kept him at home in each of the past three international breaks. This time, however, he was called up and the pressure facing him will be huge. He will start one of the two matches, and if he's to reach Euro 2016, he will have to do better than in his last outing for France: a 1-0 loss in Albania last June.
Up front, the absence of Karim Benzema -- who is just coming back from injury and still embroiled in his off-field issues -- leaves an opportunity for Olivier Giroud, Anthony Martial or Andre-Pierre Gignac to mark their territory. It is impossible to know right now if Benzema will be at the Euros, but in case he isn't, one of those three will lead France's attack.
Defensively, there is a question mark over who will partner Raphael Varane in the heart of the back four. It will be one of Laurent Koscielny or Mamadou Sakho, with the former a slight favourite, but Deschamps is still not sure of his best partnership. Ideally, France would have started the Euros with a fortified defence, but it is still under construction at present.
For the first time, we will see N'Golo Kante representing France. His revelation in the Premier League with Leicester City -- the league's player of the season, in my opinion -- will make his international debut, probably against against Russia in Paris, where he was born. There is a big gap between club level, even in the Premier League, and international level, but if Kante proves that he can step up again, he could become a big asset come the Euros.
These two games will also be another chance to see Kingsley Coman in action, the born-and-bred Parisian winger who almost single-handedly beat Juventus in their Champions League round of 16 second leg a week ago. He will start one of the two games, and most in France are excited about what he can bring to this team -- as a starter or from the bench. When you think about a front three of Griezmann, Martial and Coman, it is pretty frightening.
Coman is 19, Martial 20, Varane 22, Pogba 23 and Griezmann 25. And don't forget the likes of Maxwel Cornet (19), Thomas Lemar (20), Adrien Rabiot (20) and Aymeric Laporte (21), who were all called up to France under-21 duty this week, alongside Ousmane Dembele: the new prodigy of French football, at the tender age of 18. The future is bright for Les Bleus, and it begins this week.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter @LaurensJulien.