As with so many other Europeans nations, French football is often summed up by a stereotype of its people. French football has been characterised by ups and downs, and a lot of arrogant stars, who thought they and their clique was more important that the team. As well as leadership which instead of solving the issues, seemed to care more about the respect of their authority.
This culminated in a training strike during the World Cup in 2010. Now a lot of us might think nothing is more French than going on strike, but you simply cannot perform at top level of international football if everyone from the players, to the support staff, the manager, the coaches, and the suits in the federation do not all work together. The details are everything at this level.
2010 was a real wake-up call for the French. Laurent Blanc took over as manager of the national team. Discipline was introduced, the troublemakers from 2010 were sanctioned. In 2012 Didier Deschamps (another 1998 World Cup winner, just like Blanc) took over, and built what is today the French national team. A team that does not consist of just the best players, but instead avoids the uncontrollable egos, which in the past was more hassle than anything else for the French.
Just as Germany invested heavily in talent infrastructure about 15 years ago, then France did this as early as the late 1980s. France have for a long time been trying to find a formular, which would keep them at the top of global football, and it did get them there in 1998, when they won the World Cup at home (their only win so far). But the internal problems with attitudes took longer, and not until 2016 were France really ready to shine again after the 1998 (and Euro 2000) winning generation.
France plays a modern 4-3-3. This means it is attacking with many players. Sometimes it is formed as a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1, but essentially it remains a formation with 4 defenders, 3 central midfielders, 2 wingers, and 1 in the box striker. Although the players often switch around in their tactical roles. The idea of this formation is that every player has a lot of technical freedom, which fits the French style of large egos well.
Where do the French play?
In top tier clubs all over Europe. Those who play in France play for the big 4 (PSG 3, Marseilles 3, Monaco 2, and Lyon 1), while the 14 other are 6 in Spain (Barcelona 2, Atletico Madrid 2, Real Madrid 1, and Sevilla 1), 5 in England (Chelsea 2, Tottenham 1, Manchester United 1, Manchester City 1) 2 in Germany (Bayern Munich and Stuttgart), and 1 in Italy (Juventus).
The starting lineup has players from clubs able to challenge for the Champions League trophy in England, Spain, Italy, and France, and then the odd Stuttgart player (he might well play somewhere else after this World Cup).
This team has everything needed to win a World Cup, and it has many of the same players, as the team that lost in the 109th minute to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final.
Political influence and national narrative
France is a multicultural country with a long colonial history, and possessions around the world. A lot of poor migrants often have football as the best shoot at making at improving their lot in life. Football is a way out of poverty and potentially crime for a lot of players at the World Cup.
In the late 90s the French football national team was of every kind of ethnicity, which has brought the anger of the French far-right, but it is also a symbol of integration and unity. Which it still is today. As with many other nations, then a football win is an opportunity to bridge many social gaps. Overcome racism, take the self-determination debate down a couple of notches, and just come together as people. Restart bad relationships and turn them into something good. Football is a way to build bridges. Some of them take a lot of work, but in the end they seem to slowly pay off. France has a lot of work in redefining its post-colonial identity along with a great influx of migration and a continuing terrorist threat.
A terrorist threat which in 2015 not only targeted the concert at Bataclan, but also the French national football teams home friendly game against Germany. Football is meant to be a substitute for violence, and a peaceful way to settle our differences on the pitch. Neither hooliganism or terrorism has a place in that equation. This notion was clearly on display at France’s next football game. Away in London playing England at Wembley, the French were treated as if they were the home team in a show of what European unity looks like in face of mindless violence. Football might not be able to solve our problems, but games are an event to show our solidarity and humanity.
Group and expectations
France have struggled, but are already through from the group. They won very narrowly 2-1 against Australia and 1-0 over Peru. In their last group game they face Denmark, who with a draw are through (even if Australia beat Peru). If Denmark win, then they win the group. So with a draw or win France likely face the winner of Nigeria or Argentina (with a draw: Nigeria), who play each other in their third group game, as group C and D are paired in the round of 16. With a couple of miracles maybe Iceland could go through, but do not expect it. With a loss to Denmark, then France is 99% certain to play Croatia. Traditional expectations would dictate that Argentina finish second, so there might not be any advantage for France in winning the group.
So while France has not impressed so far, then it would still be the smarter choice to let the reserves play against Denmark. This means France might likely again struggle. However, this in no way should retract from the fact that French football is one of the best in the world. France might well still win the World Cup as they have the talent in their team to just get through, when they need to. Do not count out the French just yet, and if they face Argentina in ro16, then expect a very interesting game of two underachieving giants trying to vindicate a poor showing in their group. And who knows from there. France seemed to struggle just as much in the group at Euro 2016, and they only lost the final of the tournament in extra-time to Portugal…