Ever since receiving their winners’ medals on a rain-soaked evening in Moscow four years ago, things have not been totally plain-sailing for Didier Deschamps’s France side as they bid to defend their World Cup title at the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
Les Bleus could join an exclusive club by making it back-to-back triumphs at the World Cup – only Italy and Brazil have previously managed such a feat – and adding a Nations League title to their cabinet in 2020-21 would seemingly be the catalyst for a sustained period of success.
However, being forced to pack their bags and leave Euro 2020 at the last-16 stage was a harsh reality check for Deschamps, whose world champions were also on the verge of an unthinkable relegation to Nations League B in the 2022-23 edition before finishing a point above the dotted line.
While Deschamps – who is one of three men to have won the World Cup as a player and manager – can modify his tactics or training drills, he has been powerless against a wave of injuries and off-field scandals bedevilling French football in recent months.
Plenty of recognisable names from their triumph in Russia are still around, as are some exciting Bleuets graduates and returning veterans, and Deschamps would do well to steer France deep into the tournament while managerial hopeful Zinedine Zidane continues to lurk in the background.
France’s run in Group D will not be a cakewalk by any means, with Australia, Denmark and Tunisia all ready to pit their wits against the world champions next month.
Coincidentally, Les Bleus also took on Denmark and Australia in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup and will face the Socceroos in their opening game on November 22 at Al Janoub Stadium.
A reunion with Nations League foes Denmark follows on November 26 before France finalize their group campaign versus Tunisia at the Education City Stadium four days later.
November 22: France vs. Australia (7pm, Al Janoub Stadium, Al Wakrah)
November 26: France vs. Denmark (4pm, Stadium 974, Doha)
November 30: Tunisia vs. France (3pm, Education City Stadium, Al Rayyah)
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
It was a bit of a slog for France at first, but Les Bleus eventually progressed from the five-team Group D as winners in UEFA qualifying with 18 points from their eight matches against Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kazakhstan.
Deschamps’s side only managed to win two of their opening five matches in the group and were held by both Ukraine and Bosnia in their opening home games, but Les Bleus turned up the heat in the autumn to guarantee their spot in the Finals.
Draws were the theme between all five sides in the embryonic stages of Group D, but France won each of their final three games and officially sealed qualification by thrashing Kazakhstan 8-0 on the penultimate matchday, thanks to four strikes from Kylian Mbappe.
The final group game with Finland was nothing more than a dead rubber for the world champions, but they nevertheless completed the job with a 2-0 win to remain undefeated – one of seven UEFA teams to do so in qualifying.
Les Bleus’ five wins in the section also came with five clean sheets in tow, as Deschamps’s side conceded just three goals in their three draws for the joint-second best defensive record on the continent – Italy and Switzerland only shipped two during qualifying.
The recent qualifying period marked just the second time since 1958 that France progressed to the World Cup Finals without losing a game, having also done so in the 2006 edition before falling to Italy on penalties in the showpiece event.
After going on a seven-game winning streak between September 2021 and March 2022, France endured a shocking downturn in fortunes when it came to trying to defend their UEFA Nations League crown over the summer.
Having been forced to play four matches in quick succession straight after ending their seasons at club level, Les Bleus came up against Denmark, Croatia and Austria in the group stage and were immediately at risk of an unthinkable demotion to League B.
After going down 2-1 to Denmark on the opening day, France briefly restored parity by holding Croatia and Austria to 1-1 draws, but the Chequered Ones would glean a slice of revenge for the 2018 World Cup final by beating Deschamps’s side 1-0 on the fourth matchday.
Relegation soon turned into a real possibility for the Nations League champions, whose preparations for September’s matches were blighted by injuries here, there and everywhere, but they put themselves in a good position to remain in League A by beating Austria 2-0 on the penultimate matchday.
Deschamps’s side were not guaranteed to avoid the drop in the final group game and did themselves no favours by returning to losing ways with a 2-0 defeat to Denmark in Copenhagen, but Austria’s loss to Croatia meant that Ralf Rangnick’s side were relegated as Les Bleus survived by the skin of their teeth.
Despite managing to stay up, winning just one of their last six games is not a tally befitting that of world champions, who will not be as feared as they were four years ago.
Goalkeepers: Alphonse Areola (West Ham), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Rennes)
Defenders: Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Theo Hernandez (AC Milan), Axel Disasi (Monaco), Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool), Jules Kounde (Barcelona), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), William Saliba (Arsenal), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Raphael Varane (Manchester United)
Midfielders: Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Youssouf Fofana (Monaco), Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurelien Tchouameni (Real Madrid), Jordan Veretout (Marseille)
Forwards: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Kinglsey Coman (Bayern Munich), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Olivier Giroud (AC Milan), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig), Marcus Thuram (Borussia Monchengladbach)
STAR PLAYER – KYLIAN MBAPPE
From scoring in the 2018 World Cup final and being named the best young player in the tournament to failing to find the back of the net at all at Euro 2020, Kylian Mbappe has experienced a whirlwind of emotions in his fledgling career, and not just with the national team.
Since missing the decisive penalty against Switzerland in the last 16 of Euro 2020, Mbappe has snubbed interest from Real Madrid to sign an eye-watering new contract with Paris Saint-Germain, allegedly admitting that he made a mistake and wanted out only a few months later, and continued to find the back of the net at a prolific rate.
Amid the never-ending speculation surrounding his future, the 23-year-old has already struck 18 times in 19 games in Ligue 1 and the Champions League this season, and he has only failed to score in three of his last 10 matches for Les Bleus.
One of Mbappe’s gripes with PSG is understood to be a lack of attacking freedom that he enjoys in the France side, with 28 goals and 21 assists in 59 national team games seemingly evidence of that, and the ex-Monaco man has already broken into the top 10 of France’s all-time male goalscorers.
Mbappe needs just three more goals to overtake Jean-Pierre Papin and Just Fontaine and four to steer clear of Zinedine Zidane, but the still-active Griezmann, Giroud and Benzema are all way ahead of him, and surpassing Thierry Henry’s 51 is still just a dream for the time being.
MANAGER – DIDIER DESCHAMPS
Only three men in history can claim to have won the World Cup as both a player and manager. Brazilian luminary Mario Zagallo, German legend Franz Beckenbauer, and Didier Deschamps, who has now celebrated his 10th anniversary as Bleus head coach.
The 54-year-old was making waves in Europe all the way back in 2004, taking Monaco all the way to the final of the Champions League before losing to Jose Mourinho’s Porto, before enjoying stints at Juventus and Marseille, winning six trophies in his three years with Les Olympiens.
Once Laurent Blanc’s ill-fated reign at the helm came to an end after Euro 2012, Deschamps led France to the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, and reaching the showpiece events of major tournaments soon became his bread and butter.
Runners-up at Euro 2016, World Cup winners in 2018 and Nations League champions in 2021, France have experienced a sensational haul of success under Deschamps, who has won 84 of his 132 matches in charge.
The former ball-winning midfielder is only under contract with France until after the 2022 World Cup, and despite being handed extension after extension in recent years, a repeat of their Euro 2020 troubles could threaten his prospects of guiding Les Bleus to another major tournament.
WORLD CUP RECORD
Best finish: Winners (1998, 2018)
Not even the miserable Moscow weather could dampen the spirits of the French team as they won the World Cup for a second time four years ago, with a 20-year gap and a runners-up medal to Italy in 2006 in between their two triumphs.
Aime Jacquet led Les Bleus to international glory in 1998, prior to which France had finished third-best in 1958 and 1986, as well as reaching the semi-finals in 1982 as they started to make waves in the World Cup.
France also hold a special place in World Cup history, as they participated in one of the two inaugural games in the tournament in the 1930 edition – which they received a special invite to – beating Mexico 4-1 as Lucien Laurent scored the competition’s first-ever goal.
Down the years, France have failed to qualify on five occasions – most recently in 1990 and 1994 – and they have rather disappointingly suffered six exits at the group stage, including in 2002 and 2010.
All in all, France have posted a record of 34 wins, 13 draws and 19 defeats in 66 World Cup matches – scoring 120 goals – but they also hold an unwanted record of being the worst-performing defending champions after failing to win a single game in 2002.
In spite of their ongoing injury, tactical and off-field problems, the motivation of defending their World Cup crown should lead to a galvanized France side topping Group D and setting up a last-16 tie with the runners-up of Group C.
Mexico or Poland would seemingly be Les Bleus’ most likely opponents in that scenario, and Deschamps’s men should progress from that tie with minimal difficulty before a possible showdown with England in the quarter-finals.
England’s ongoing woes makes it easy to envisage France coming out on top in that one, and we do not expect a Spain side to stand in their way in the semi-finals either, but meeting favourites Brazil in the final could prove to be their undoing.