Talented but temperamental, cocky but insecure, never straightforward, ever dramatic, Les Bleus will be...
French football over the years has often been likened to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because it is never certain which side the spectators will witness on a given day. After winning the World Cup in 1998, Les Bleus went winless in the 2002 World Cup, made the title clash four years later and went winless again in 2010 as they bickered their way through South Africa, with a player dismissal and team boycott.
This time around, France needed a playoff to reach Brazil. With its flair for the dramatic, it lost the first leg 2-0 to Ukraine before winning the return 3-0, becoming the first side to overturn a two-goal deficit in European World Cup playoffs. France did it moreover in an electric atmosphere inside the Stade de France that bore echoes of its 1998 triumph.
But just as the national mood turned bullish, with talk in the cafes of going all the way again, news broke that Franck Ribery, the team’s talisman, would miss the World Cup with a back injury. Ribery said his World Cup absence was "a death in the soul" but that he knew his teammates “will do all they can for the blue jersey and … I will be their number one supporter."
Coach Didier Deschamps admitted the magnitude of the loss, but sought to quickly move on. "It's a sad day,” he said. “We know what Franck is capable of. But I have other players. Part of my job is to anticipate things and try out different options. There are lots of possibilities. (Antoine) Griezmann has done some good things. With Franck Ribery at 100 per cent, we are better. But we have to be ambitious and we will continue to be."
While the pullout marks the end of Ribery’s World Cup career, there are others who can step up. Real Sociedad star Griezmann has caught several eyes, not just Deschamps’s, on the left flank, and Mathieu Valbuena, a creative master of the final pass, will provide another wide option.
There’s certainly talent all round the field. There’s Paul Pogba, who Juventus fans know and adore. The 21-year-old central midfielder has the opportunity to be a breakout global star in Brazil. A dynamic, powerful, all-action player with an eye for goal, Pogba can drive France forward.
Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud and Loic Remy provide the strike-force in front of goal but there’s also athleticism and composure at the back, with Lorient Koscielny and Raphael Varane. On paper, the squad has the potential to do well and yet L’Equipe recently asked if this was the worst French team in history, in keeping with the team’s schizophrenic reputation.
It appears a straightforward group to get out of, but France has a tendency to make the simple complex. Besides Switzerland is a defensively well-organised unit and Ecuador is a fast, powerful team that can shock anyone on the counter. No one knows which France will turn up in Brazil. But nearly everyone will be watching.