France’s World Cup title defense is already a chaotic, snowballing mess

The France men’s national soccer team is no stranger to madness. In the 21st century alone, its greatest hits include a sex-tape blackmail case, a player mutiny, racist quotas and a headbutt. But never before have controversies coalesced into a pre-World Cup storm quite like the one brewing right now near Paris.

In their prep for Qatar 2022, Les Bleus have won just one of six games. They lost their second-straight to Denmark on Sunday, and look, on paper and in practice, like imposters of the All-Star team that conquered all comers four years ago.

Results, however, are the least of their problems. Over the last two months, there’s been a scary extortion case and accusations of witchcraft; a photoshoot boycott and a dispute between the team’s brightest star, Kylian Mbappé, and the French Football Federation over image rights; reports of sexual abuse cover-ups and harassment within the federation; and a raft of injuries that have reduced a once-absurdly-deep squad to an alarmingly average one.

Defending World Cup champs have a habit of imploding. The last three, and four of five this century, have failed to progress beyond the group stage. The implosions, though, typically climax during the tournament, and on the field. France’s, on the other hand, appears to already be underway, and it knows no bounds.

“The atmosphere is heavy,” head coach Didier Deschamps admitted earlier this month.

There is still time, of course, for heaviness to ease, and for reams of talent to rise to the surface. But given the characters involved and the historical precedent, nobody is betting on that.

Injuries galore for France

Back in 2018, and in the surrounding years, Deschamps could have fielded two distinct squads capable of challenging for a World Cup. At the moment, he is struggling to build one, because his starting 11 and reserves have been decimated by injury.

Among the absentees this month were Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema, Kingsley Coman, Adrien Rabiot, Theo Hernandez, Lucas Hernandez, Presnel Kimpembe and Hugo Lloris. Their absences opened doors to up-and-comers and fringe players — some of whom were also struck down by ill-timed strains or knocks. Ibrahima Konaté, Boubacar Kamara and Lucas Digne also missed out on two September games. And then, in the first, Jules Kounde and Mike Maignan, Lloris’ deputy at goalkeeper, joined the overflowing list — a list that, on its own, could probably win a World Cup.

France's Kylian Mbappe reacts after missing a chance to score during the UEFA Nations League soccer match between France and Austria at the Stade de France stadium in Saint Denis, outside Paris, France,Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Kylian Mbappe is just about the only thing France has going for it ahead of the 2022 World Cup. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Most of the injuries, including Kante’s and Benzema’s, should heal in plenty of time for Qatar. The chief doubt is Pogba, who sustained a meniscus injury in July. He initially opted against surgery, and attacked a rehabilitation process that put him on track to return before the World Cup. After some anti-gravity-treadmill running and training-ground tests, however, he consulted doctors and underwent an operation. Juventus coach Max Allegri now says that Pogba won’t play for his club until after the World Cup. It’s unclear how fit he’ll be by November.

The other injuries, though, are relevant in that they robbed Les Bleus of their only meaningful time to jell before Qatar. Their June international window was marred by the absence of Deschamps, who was mourning the death of his father. Their September window featured the likes of Jonathan Clauss, Youssouf Fofana, Benoît Badiashile, Adrien Truffert and Randal Kolo Muani — players who, in all likelihood, will have no role to play in the World Cup title defense. The full squad won’t gather again until a week before its World Cup opener.

Its attempt to repeat will depend on its ability to evolve, something that six decades of predecessors have so often failed to do. The last back-to-back men’s World Cup winner was Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

Its ability to evolve, though, has been hampered, if not outright impeded, by its current incompleteness — and, perhaps, by the countless off-field issues that demand its energy and attention.

French Football Federation's toxicity and dysfunction

Some of the issues stretch far beyond the current men’s national team. Noel Le Graet, the dinosaurian FFF president, who in the past has denied the existence of racism in soccer, has been accused of sexual misconduct and harassment of federation employees.

Le Graet, now 80, has allegedly sent inappropriate messages to multiple female staffers, and fostered a culture in which misogynistic and harassing behavior is commonplace. Several women have left their jobs at the federation to escape it. Senior male officials allegedly, and repeatedly, have joked about women’s appearances and dress.

The FFF has also reportedly attempted to systemically suppress multiple allegations of sexual abuse, including abuse of youth players, throughout French soccer.

The toxicity and dysfunction is wide-ranging, and often flies over the heads of current players. But it hasn’t completely eluded them, and sometimes hangs over them. Mbappe, for example, has criticized Le Graet for ignoring complaints about the racist abuse he endured last year.

The 23-year-old forward also took issue with an image rights agreement that forced French national team players to endorse certain brands, such as fast food chains and bettings companies. In June, the FFF said it would revise the agreement. By September, it hadn’t, so Mbappe announced that he’d boycott a pre-World Cup photoshoot. Other senior players supported the boycott. It led to an urgent meeting between a few of them, Deschamps and Le Graet, and to another promise from the FFF — at the beginning of a week that was supposed to be their most important week of on-field World Cup prep.

Countless members of the French soccer community have called for Le Graet to resign. He has refused, and continues to oversee an endless stream of distractions.

L’Affaire Pogba

It now seems like ages ago that the biggest distraction was L'Affaire Pogba, the unfathomably messy extortion case involving the magical midfielder and his brother. The case exploded into public view late last month when Mathias Pogba, Paul’s older brother, appeared in a bizarre video, in which he promised “big revelations” about Paul, Paul's representative and Mbappé.

Among the supposedly impending revelations was that Paul Pogba had asked a marabout — a Muslim holy man or hermit — from his entourage to cast a "spell" on Mbappé. The media latched onto this, and framed it as a potential bombshell that could rupture the relationship between the two French stars irreparably, and just months before the World Cup.

In reality, according to Paul and French authorities, it was nonsense — and it distracted from the genuine concern, which is that Pogba, who dazzled at the 2018 World Cup, has been the subject of alleged threats and armed extortion attempts since March. He has been living with the associated trauma, and under police protection, as the World Cup nears. His brother and four other former friends have been arrested, but worries remain ripe.

They are clouding France’s World Cup prep, which, remember, has been the opposite of smooth on the field. The team nearly finished bottom of a UEFA Nations League group of Austria, Denmark and Croatia.

France remains a 2022 World Cup favorite (+550) on pedigree and talent alone. But everything surrounding that talent is snowballing into pessimism and chaos.