Forget, for a moment, that shortly after the announcement of France’s final 23-man roster for the 2014 World Cup, that Anare Atanes took to Twitter, voicing her displeasure that her boyfriend, Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri, was left off the squad.
And forget that it contained some choice F-bombs for French national coach Didier Deschamps, who then announced that he would sue Atanes, with the full backing of the French Football Federation, for the disparaging tweets.
While Deschamps’ war with a WAG feels reminiscent of the soap opera that haunted Les Blues for their entire 2010 World Cup campaign, 2014 feels different. For one, it’s seemingly impossible to implode in as spectacular fashion as the French did in 2010 – you’ll recall that striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home mid-tournament by coach Raymond Domenech after a halftime argument, and in response, the French team showed up for training the next day but didn’t actually train, instead sequestering themselves in the team bus and drawing its curtains. The campaign was such a downer for French soccer fans that last week, the French Football Federation let Adidas destroy said team bus (and exorcise all the bad juju) with a giant claw-and-crane contraption.
The team already is exhibiting more of a spine than the 2010 edition of the team, thanks to their difficult road in to this year’s World Cup. Stuck in the same UEFA group with Spain, France finished second and into the home-and-away playoff rounds, drawing Ukraine. In its opening leg, France lost 2-0, and returned to Paris for the return leg with French newspapers asking the rhetorical question, “Is This the Worst French Team Ever?” But with a goal from Karim Benzema and two goals from unlikely hero Mamadou Sakho—the last with 18 minutes in regulation time—France vanquished Ukraine and edged their way into the tournament … landing on the soft, fluffy pillow that is Group E.
In addition to drawing the most maligned of the seeded teams in Switzerland, Group E features relatively weak teams in Ecuador and Honduras – and should France win the group, its likeliest Round of 16 opponent is either Bosnia and Herzegovina or Nigeria – both well below France in current FIFA World Rankings.
Perhaps most important in factoring in France’s chances: It’s an immensely talented team. The three pure forwards listed on the 23-man roster are particularly impressive—first-team striker duties have been split in qualifying between Karim Benzema (who had a multi-game scoreless drought in international play last year, but managed a goal every other game as Real Madrid’s primary #9) and Olivier Giroud (averaging nearly 20 goals in 50 appearances the last two seasons at Arsenal, after a year where he led Ligue One in scoring at Montpelier). The team’s other natural striker, Loic Remy, will likely parlay his successful loan campaign with Newcastle last season (14 goals in 27 apps) into a move to a Champions League squad in the coming season.
Normally, the announcement of a Ballon D’Or finalist missing the World Cup due to injury would be a death blow for a team with France’s recent fragile history, but they won’t miss Franck Ribery nearly as much as, say, Portugal would miss Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann is a rising star who could have the breakout tournament to vault him into legitimate real-star status, and Ribery’s injury means that Griezmann will get plenty of playing time to shine.
The other breakout star waiting to happen is Paul Pogba, the Juventus defensive midfielder who is only now, at age 21, coming into a prime reminiscent of Yaya Toure—beastly defense and creative offense from anywhere he pleases really. Additional midfielders like Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Valbuena should fill in well enough to keep French fans from regretting the decision to leave Nasri behind.
Defensively, a pair of rated-yet-underrated Arsenal defenders, Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna (who actually just moved to Man City), feature in a back line rotation that also includes veteran Patrice Evra, Mathieu Debuchy (who plays club soccer with Newcastle, dubbed Neufchatel by the English press for its fondness for French players), and Raphael Varane, coming into his own at Real Madrid. They all play in front of Hugo Lloris, arguably the best keeper France has had since Fabien Barthez was helping France to win the ’98 World Cup and to reach the ’06 World Cup finals.
Perhaps we should assume that Deschamps’ newfound penchant for controversy is merely his special way of deflecting negative attention from the team. He did, after all, recently respond to media questions about a brothel being located near the team’s Brazil home base by insinuating that media members will be frequenting that brothel.
The bottom line is that France has the potential, the talent, and the favorable draw to break into the tournament’s final eight. While they might not ultimately have the horses to keep up with a Germany or an Argentina, an unbridled French team going into the July games would make the World Cup far more interesting than a France that repeats its 2010 meltdown, even for fans of the spectacle that France seems uniquely qualified to bring.