Belgium, the 5th favorites for the World Cup, has been touted as the tournament’s ‘dark horse’ by pundits and fans alike. The ‘dark horse’ tag is a bit of a misnomer though as the Belgians possess a squad replete with talent, but the title could fit quite comfortably on shoulders of their neighbors to the south, France.
Underestimate or overestimate the French at your peril. In recent times it’s either been feast or famine for France with respect to the World Cup. Consider their record over the past few tournaments:
USA ‘94 – Did not qualify (famously needing only a draw in their final qualifier against Bulgaria, France lost 2-1 in the last minute of the game to a goal from Emil Kostadinov. The Bulgarians qualified at Les Bleus’ expense.)
France ‘98 – Winners
South Korea/Japan 2002 – Knocked out in the group stage without scoring a goal
Germany 2006 – Runners-up
South Africa 2010 – Went on strike and knocked out in the group stage.
If this crazy sequence of events is anything to go by then France is a shoo-in for the finals at the very least. Of course soccer doesn’t work like that, but the relative lack of attention and expectation could work in France’s favor.
The French did make heavy work of getting through to this year’s World Cup, qualifying via the play-offs with a 3-2 aggregate win over Ukraine. Lest we forget, the French lost 2-0 in the first leg but managed to become the first European team to overturn a two goal deficit to reach the World Cup, winning 3-0 at home. The tie typified the French team’s character in recent tournaments: producing nothing when heaped with expectation and then grasping victory from the jaws of defeat when their backs were against the wall.
Why should France be considered the ‘dark horse’ for the World Cup? Firstly, they’ve been drawn in Group E, which is not the toughest group in the tournament by any stretch of the imagination. The French play Honduras, Ecuador, and Switzerland and possess the quality to beat all three sides. However, if France lapse into complacency then there’s always the chance that they could implode.
Let’s assume that France do qualify top of Group E. They would most likely face Bosnia and Herzegovina or Nigeria in the round of 16. Difficult opponents, granted, but certainly beatable. The Bosnians playing in the first World Cup could be overawed by the experience, whilst African champions Nigeria are just as capable at imploding as the French. It’s the quarter finals, should Les Bleus progress that far, that would provide France’s first real test, a potential clash against Germany.
Germany would go into the game as favorites, but with the added pressure to win a trophy. For all the talent that the Germans possess, this group of players have yet to fully realize their potential. Additionally, Germany has not won a major title since Euro ’96 and for a nation used to international success that is an unacceptable trophy drought. The pressure can work in France’s favor as the onus would be on the Germans to win the game. As outrageous as it sounds, it remains to be seen if the Germans mentally strong enough to win.
Should France negotiate that hurdle, then a potential semifinal match against the Seleção beckons. Brazil would go into the game as overwhelming favorites and look to put right their recent World Cup record against the French. Brazil lost to France on penalties in 1986, in the final 1998, and more recently in 2006 at the quarter final stage. Again being the underdogs would suit the French and though it would take a huge effort, it’s not beyond Didier Deschamps’s men to spring a huge upset.
If all goes to form, the French would play either Argentina or Spain in the final. Should the Argentineans progress to the final, the whole of Brazil would be behind the French and as the cliché goes, anything can happen in a final.
It seems like a fanciful notion that France could get as far that and a lot of things would need to fall into place for them to progress to the final stages of the World Cup. What they do possess though is talent, and if Didier Deschamps can bring them together, the French have a unit that is capable of troubling the best teams in the world.
In goal they will start with Hugo Lloris, who goes into the tournament as one of the better keepers in the world. Additionally, his style of keeping can help the French team press high up the pitch as the Spurs custodian reads the game exceptionally well and can play the sweeper-keeper role if Deschamps chooses to be bold and attacking.
Defensively, the French have a collection of players that can form a very solid back line. Elaquim Mangala is one of the most sought after defenders in Europe. Raphael Varane is considered one of the finest young talents in world football and has the extra motivation to show what he can do after a relatively disappointing season with Real Madrid (which culminated with a Copa Del Ray and Champions League Winner’s medal!). Lucas Digne, who can play at left back, has just won a Ligue 1 title with Paris St-Germain, Laurent Koscielny had a solid season with Arsenal. France can also count on the experience of Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra, though the latter isn’t the most popular player amongst the French public. Add to that Mamadou Sakho, who scored twice against Ukraine in that memorable 3-0 win, and Mathieu Debuchy and the French possess enough good players to provide a base for the team to flourish further up field.
The midfield is similarly blessed with talent. Paul Pogba is the name that immediately leaps out and he has all the qualities to become one of the game’s elite players. Yohan Cabaye is capable of sitting deep and dictating the play, though at club level he probably hasn’t played as often as he’d have liked at PSG. Blaise Matuidi can provide the steel at the heart of the French midfield and in Lyon’s Clement Grenier and Marseille’s Mathieu Valbuena, France possesses two talented schemers capable of unlocking tight defenses.
In attack, on paper at least, France possesses an extremely dangerous frontline. Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, the highly rated Antione Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, and Loic Remy are capable of causing opposition defenses all sorts of trouble. Ribery has the motivation to perform in Brazil after missing out on the Ballon D’or, not to mention that this could be his last World Cup. Karim Benzema will most likely lead the line and whilst the talent is there for all to be seen, his goal return isn’t perhaps what it should be for a player of his quality. Deschamps, though, has ensured that he has a good mix of different front players so that he can make tactical changes.
The most eye-catching thing about the French squad is not who has been selected, but instead who has been left out. Manchester City forward Samir Nasri was axed from the 23 by Didier Deschamps. The manager feared that Nasri may have a negative influence on the camp, which ultimately outweighed any possible benefits that he could bring to the pitch. It is a big decision but one that Deschamps was happy to make, much to the chagrin of Nasri’s girlfriend. Nasri’s performance in the away leg against Ukraine may have sealed Deschamps’ decision and it remains to be seen whether the French will suffer from his absence.
On the surface, it may seem a crazy call to tip the French to go all the way. In all probability they will fall short and exit in the quarterfinal stage. However, if the squad pulls in the same direction, Deschamps gets his tactics right, and a few key players hit form at the right time, the path is there for the French to make a decent push for the latter stages of the tournament. They are worth a flutter, if you’re of the betting persuasion, and could really be the World Cup’s dark horse – or should that be ‘cheval noir’?