France evolving to become one of the world's best after stunning 2016
International football waved goodbye to 2016 this week and, depending on where you are from, your country may have had a shocking year (like Netherlands), a disappointing one (like England or Belgium), or a great one above all expectations (like Iceland and Wales for example.)
For France, it was almost a perfect one. Les Bleus only lost one of their 16 matches this calendar year. The bad news was that it was the one they had to win: the European Championship final against Portugal in Paris.
As so often in these kinds of matches, the margins were tiny. On Andre-Pierre Gignac's shot that hit the post, on Laurent Koscielny's challenge on Eder, and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris' dive that failed to stop the Portuguese striker from scoring the only goal of the game.
France's hearts were broken. The players felt they let the country down and the glamorous Hotel Molitor in the west of Paris, where they would have had the biggest party ever after the final, looked like the gloomiest and saddest place possible in the days after the game.
However, as hard as the loss was to take, it can't conceal the progress France have made this year.
"It was a beautiful year which could have been even better. But the team has grown a lot, especially during the Euros. I would take every year to be like this one," said Didier Deschamps on Tuesday night after a 0-0 draw with Ivory Coast.
Les Bleus finished 2016 with 13 wins, three draws and one defeat -- equalling Jacques Santini's record from 2003. The side went from being 25th in the FIFA world rankings a year ago to seventh currently. Their win ratio is the highest in Europe (81.3 percent) and they could even have made history with a 14th victory against the African team in Lens.
Yet the game ended up as one of the most boring of the season. It felt like the experienced players on the pitch (Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Kevin Gameiro) didn't really care and that the younger ones (Adrien Rabiot, Moussa Dembele, Lucas Digne, Sebastien Corchia and Thomas Lemar) cared too much and were overwhelmed by the whole occasion.
It is odd that such a good year for France finished with such a bad display. In their last 26 friendlies, the team had always scored at least one -- in fact, the last time they didn't was away in Belgium in August 2013 -- but they failed to break through and thus ended their fine year without much fanfare.
Nevertheless, France have come of age in 2016. The Euro 2016 tournament really came in two parts: the first one (before the 4-4-2 formation was used) where Les Bleus struggled against smaller opposition like Romania, Albania, Switzerland and one half against Ireland. Then a second part when Deschamps switched to his new system in the second half against the Irish, took down Iceland in a dominating fashion and then Germany in a counter attacking one on their way to the final.
Deschamps found his best formation as the squad found a team spirit. And, ever since, the progress has been clear to see on the pitch.
Antoine Griezmann became a star in the 4-4-2 with his partnership with Olivier Giroud up front seeing 16 goals scored between them -- almost half of France's 36. Then there was the rebirth of Payet on the international scene; Lloris reached another level in goal; Koscielny overtook Raphael Varane at the back to become France's defensive leader; while Pogba even found some discipline and simplified his game in a two-man central midfield.
Deschamps has also made sure he is prepared for the next generation. In 2016, Ousmane Dembele (19), Rabiot (20), Lemar (21) and Samuel Umtiti (22) all made their debuts, while Kingsley Coman (20) and Anthony Martial (20) were already around. At 23, Nabil Fekir and goalkeeper Alphonse Areola are looking old compared to this bunch of youngsters, and Alban Lafont and Kylian Mbappe (both 17), Issa Diop (19) or Moussa Dembele (20) can't be too far behind either.
Let's not forget that 28-year-old Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema could also come back at some point. Whether France need him or not is another debate.
After an encouraging 2014 World Cup (which ended in a quarterfinal defeat against Germany) and a solid 2015 with some incredibly hard off-pitch issues to deal with, France did even better in 2016. They found an identity, a squad, some world-class players, a team spirit and an ambition.
France were already looking at the 2018 World Cup with the objective of becoming the best team in the world and now that belief is translating to their fans. Les Bleus will take some beating over the next few years.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.