In echoes of ’98, crafty semifinalist France looks more and more like a World Cup winner
It’s easy to forget now. Only that glorious, rampaging final is seared into our memories. Zinedine Zidane scored twice and Emmanuel Petit ran up the score in injury time. France 3, Brazil 0. And the French won their first and only World Cup on home soil. That was two decades ago, minus six days.
But that tournament was a slog for the French too, much like this one has been so far. Les Bleus reached the semifinals of the ongoing World Cup in their 2-0 victory over Uruguay in a dour game on Friday, but they haven’t yet played up to their enormous potential – save for a brief spell against Argentina.
In Russia, France won its first game over Australia 2-1 thanks to a VAR-assisted penalty and a VAR-awarded own goal. A pedestrian Peru was only beaten 1-0. And with the group already locked up, a bunch of reserves knocked the ball around a bit in a 0-0 stalemate with Denmark that suited both teams just fine.
The Round of 16 match with an overmatched Argentina was spectacular, ending 4-3. But it never should have been that close. France took an early lead, unexpectedly went behind, and then steamrolled the Argentines for a spell, scoring three times in 11 minutes as the 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe reaffirmed his status as the best young striker in the world. An injury-time Sergio Aguero goal made the final score an awful lot narrower than it should have been.
Friday, as the French reached a remarkable sixth semifinal – now the fourth-most of any team ever, behind only Germany, Brazil and Italy – they didn’t exactly set the field in Nizhny Novgorod alight either. In a flat and sloppy game of attrition that never delivered on its promise, Didier Deschamps’ men got their goals on a glancing Raphael Varane header and a swerving Antoine Griezmann shot that Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera flubbed and allowed to lazily arc into his own net.
The one true highlight came when France goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris French-kissed a bypassing bug of some kind. (In fairness, he also made two saves in the first half.)
While Uruguay could count its scoring chances on one hand – half a hand, perhaps – the French defense was unconvincing and its distribution stuttered. It never really felt like a game. A French win seemed preordained just as soon as the news got out that Uruguay’s other star striker Edinson Cavani’s injury had not healed quickly enough for him to be deployed alongside Luis Suarez. Uruguay very much needed both of them to stand a chance.
In a sense, this, then, has actually been a smoother path into the last four than even the year France won the World Cup.
The similarities are fairly striking. Both teams were considered gifted and deep enough to be capable of winning, but with the caveats that other talented incarnations of Les Bleus had imploded time and again. Both teams were delightfully diverse, reflecting a modern France in spite of a notable right-wing surge. Both teams had question-marks at the striker position. The current one went with the sometimes-convincing Olivier Giroud over problem-child Karim Benzema and Alexandre Lacazette. The old one, 20 years ago, had to make due with Stephane Guivarc’h, as phenoms Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet weren’t considered quite mature enough to carry the load in every game.
Both teams were either captained or coached by Deschamps.
During the group stage in ’98, France rolled over South Africa and then Saudi Arabia 3-0 and 4-0, respectively, before beating Denmark 2-1. But then things got tough. Paraguay wasn’t dispatched until injury time, when Laurent Blanc scored the golden goal – which was a thing during that tournament – in the 114th minute. In a scoreless quarterfinal with Italy, penalties were needed to dispatch Italy. And in the semis, a deficit to Croatia was overturned by two unlikely goals from defender Lilian Thuram – in spite of a red card to Blanc.
(They were the two only goals in Thuram’s France career, which spanned an enormous 142 games, still comfortably the most appearances by any Frenchman.)
Only then, in an unchained final against a Brazil hampered by a still-mysterious pre-game medical episode to 21-year-old superstar Ronaldo, did France rediscover its form from the group stage trampling of a pair of minnows. But that wasn’t how the French had gotten there. They’d survived to the final, rather than thriving their way there.
This is how you win World Cups. You scrape and claw and batter and bull. You find a way. And then, in the next game, you find another way. And if it isn’t pretty, well, it doesn’t have to be. This France can go high as well as low, matching a typically combative Uruguay’s intensity and brawn on Friday.
France keeps finding ways at this World Cup. And so the way to a second world championship remains wide open.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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