This is their time. Not only do France have history on their side as the host nation, having won two of the three post-war major tournaments to be held in their own back yard (Euro 84 and World Cup 98), but they have had an uncommonly calm run-up to the event.
Rather than fans campaigning against the manager (as with Aime Jacquet in 1998), the coach being caught making offensive remarks (à la Laurent Blanc), players fighting or the Stade de France crowd booing their own team (most years), there’s a sense of optimism, with a bright young team and some magnificent stadiums ready for kick-off on June 10.
The only fly in the ointment has been the sex-tape scandal involving Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena, reminding us that nobody does off-field drama quite like Les Bleus. Benzema has been excluded from the squad as the legal proceedings rumble on, while Valbuena’s form has fallen off a cliff since he returned home to France from Dynamo Moscow, although this is more of a compatibility issue with his new employers, Lyon.
Didier Deschamps has such squad depth at his disposal, however, that France should be able to get along just fine without both of them, if worst comes to worst. To judge just what a richly talented squad France have, you only have to look at the quality of players who won’t make the cut this summer, with Alexandre Lacazette, Geoffrey Kondogbia and a resurgent Hatem Ben Arfa among those likely to miss out. In Antoine Griezmann and Blaise Matuidi, Deschamps’ team has new leaders that the nation feels it can rely on.
The results have really come together in the last year, too. After a poor summer of 2015, France have won seven of their eight matches since September, with the one defeat – against England at Wembley – entirely understandable as the nation came to terms with the Paris terrorist attacks four days previously.
Lesson from qualifying
Qualifying, you say? The ‘centralised friendlies’ experiment was an interesting one, making the host nation a figurative (but non-point-scoring) part of an actual qualifying group and thus not totally apart from the qualifying campaign. It did little to add genuine competitiveness to their preparation for the tournament, however.
The options available to Deschamps are myriad, especially in terms of firepower, and he’ll have plenty of scope to change things around if it’s not working. In short, you could hardly wish for a better calibre of players to solve any given conundrum that might arise in the knockout rounds. ‘The Water Carrier’ finds himself in an enviable position – now he has to deliver.
If anything’s going to trip France up, it’s the backline. The full-backs are long in the tooth and defensively questionable, and even lynchpin Raphael Varane has had an up-and-down season with Real Madrid. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris might have to have a Manuel Neuer-esque tournament if Les Bleus are to fulfil their ambition in Paris.
Most likely to…
Argue among themselves, go on strike, gatecrash live television shows to defend themselves and then storm off home (not very far, admittedly). Then again, it might be like The Waltons now that Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri are out of the picture…
Least likely to…
See the substitutes smiling and giving the thumbs-up from the bench as the camera pans down the touchline five minutes after the game has started.
What they hope will happen
Win the whole thing, parade the trophy in front of a million-plus people on the Champs-Élysées and then go on to usher in a new era of French global domination.
What will happen
Win the whole thing, build on that success by lifting the 2018 World Cup in Russia, then tumble out in the first round of their title defence in 2020 amid a renewed round of squabbles and turning up in the wrong country for their first match.
Key player - Paul Pogba
For some time, the expectation has been that this will be Paul Pogba’s tournament. That Lassana Diarra is there beside him to cover any defensive shortcomings will only help the Juventus midfield genius to dominate games, and bring his inimitable influence to bear in the final third of the pitch.
Manager - Didier Deschamps
France’s revered 1998 World Cup-winning skipper has proven his ability to forgive and forget after fallouts, as shown by recalling Dimitri Payet. The coach might just be able to maintain team unity under pressure.
Q&A - Andre-Pierre Gignac
How good is this France squad and what is the atmosphere like within the group?
We have a good, solid squad. We feel good together and we laugh a lot. On the pitch, our recent friendly matches went well, even if there are still a few defensive issues to sort out [France won 3-2 in the Netherlands before beating Russia 4-2 at home]. I don’t know if those lapses came because we relaxed a bit too much or lost focus, but they’re something we must work on before the tournament. We were 2-0 up in both games and still managed to concede in each one. Russia scored from a set-piece and that’s certainly something we need to fix. The coach was not laughing about that.
Which young French talent could make a name for themselves this summer?
Kingsley Coman. We all know just how good he is. There are some youngsters who have extraordinary ability, and he is a very, very good player – I can tell you that from having trained alongside him.
And who do you think will be France’s surprise revelation at Euro 2016 this summer?
N’Golo Kante. He’s quiet! His ability to retrieve the ball is incredible, though. His rise has been quite staggering. This freshness is good for us.
Despite leaving Marseille to join Tigres UANL in Mexico last summer, you’ve earned a recall to the France squad in recent months. What would representing your country on home soil at the European Championship mean to you?
It’s a unique feeling to wear the shirt. Wearing the shirt and hearing the supporters singing evokes plenty of emotion in me. I love to see the reaction of the fans when I score. But being part of the last two French squads means nothing; I need to continue to score goals for Tigres. I must be decisive in front of goal – if I am not, then things will be more complicated. I have to convince. I am 10,000km away from France, under the sun; every time I come back home, it’s not just to look at the flowers in Clairefontaine.
Results and fixtures
June 10, Romania - Saint-Denis, 3am
June 15, Albania - Marseille, 3am
June 19, Switzerland - Lille, 3am
LAST TEN FRIENDLIES
vs Belgium (H) 3-4
vs Albania (A) 0-1
vs Portugal (A) 1-0
vs Serbia (H) 2-1
vs Armenia (H) 4-0
vs Denmark (A) 2-1
vs Germany (H) 2-0
vs England (A) 0-2
vs Holland (A) 3-2
vs Russia (H) 4-2
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
1992 Group stage
2008 Group stage
Words Andy Brassell; Interview Jonathan Johnson
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