A couple of weeks before this World Cup began, Adidas organized an event in France where they invited local press and spectators to watch a bus get destroyed. This wasn't just any bus, though. It was a replica of France's 2010 World Cup bus, which was the setting for the team's sit-in protest during a training session that proved to be the lasting image of an ugly chapter in the squad's history.
Though this was just a clever marketing stunt, it's proven to be a true representation of how the old French team was smashed up to make way for a new generation that has excelled in Brazil. After taking just one bitter point on the way to finishing bottom of their group in 2010, France finished top of Group E this time around with two emphatic wins and a draw. Les Bleus then beat Nigeria 2-0 to become one of the few round of 16 teams that didn't need extra time or penalties to reach the quarterfinals. Next up: A Germany team that went 120 nervy minutes with Algeria and now has seven players suffering from flu-like symptoms.
But even after the 2010 clear-out, France had to pull out a major comeback just to make it to Brazil. Finishing second to then still mighty Spain in their UEFA World Cup qualifying group forced France into a playoff against Ukraine, who won the first leg 2-0. As embarrassing as the 2010 episode was, but this younger French side proved their mettle by winning the second leg 3-0.
"Of course I still have the rage inside me from that game," defender Mamadou Sakho, who scored two of those three goals against Ukraine, told the AP Wednesday. "We all have a little bit of that rage inside of us."
Led by manager Didier Deschamps, who has never lost a World Cup match as a coach or player (he captained the 1998 team that won it), France have gone undefeated in their last eight matches, with clean sheets in six of them. All this while Franck Ribery, arguably the team's best player, was unable to play in this tournament due to injury.
According to Sakho, the new, unified spirit within the squad has been a significant difference between now and the recent past. From the AP:
"Everyone sits together at the dinner table, there's no difference," Sakho said. "After the meal last night eight of us stayed at the table to talk about football and about life in general. It was brilliant."
Some change from Euro 2012, when players formed cliques and went straight to their rooms after finishing their meals. It was even worse at the 2010 World Cup, where they were united — but only because they went on strike and refused to train after one of their teammates was sent home.
"I wasn't part of the old generation, but we really sense that this team gets on," Sakho said. "If you have strong characters things can blow apart when you're together for one month. We have strong characters in this team but we're able to control it."
Even with the flu shivers, Germany will provide this reborn French team's most formidable opposition yet. And even if it does end in the quarterfinals for France, this run has been nothing short of impressive. To go from the tournament's most shameful and shambolic team to one of its most exciting in a span of fours years shows what a fresh crop of talent and a positive attitude can do.
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- Mamadou Sakho
- 2010 World Cup