In early June, I had an appointment at the French Football Federation (FFF) headquarters, a modern building with lots of glass and light in Paris’ 15th arrondisement. The place hummed with activity and there was a contagious undercurrent of optimism and eager anticipation. My visit occurred just after the last of Les Bleus’ three pre-World Cup tune-up matches (a win vs Norway, 4-0; a draw vs. Paraguay, 1-1; a win vs Jamaica, 8-0), so perhaps those successes fed into the confidence emanating from 87, boulevard de Grenelle. Yet, the atmosphere differed from September, when the air was more heavily perfumed with the “we’ve got hard work to do” odor of determination. This time around, even the French media, often highly critical of Les Bleus, reflected an upbeat sentiment. There were expectations to be met, everyone seemed to agree: demonstrate that Les Bleus today are the antithesis to the 2010 incarnation, and progress to the Round of 16. As soon as I cleared customs at Dulles Airport, I slotted France in my World Cup bracket to make a deep run into the tournament.
Did I fall victim to French football’s charm offensive? Yes, that’s highly likely. After all, the slogan #impossiblenestpasfrançais (impossible isn’t French) plays directly into my American sense of the possible. Was part of my decision based on the fact that, as a historian of French football and basketball, a successful Les Bleus was “good for business?” Of course! Yet France will have a good run this year thanks to factors other than my gut feeling and hopefulness.
Psychologically, Les Bleus have confidence, perhaps more so than any other team at the tournament at this point, aside from Costa Rica. This assuredness took many months to build and is embedded in the team’s November 2013 second-leg World Cup qualifier against Ukraine. That game, which sealed France’s berth in Brazil, was important for the players, who understood that, finally, the stadium, the press, and a good chunk of the public stood behind them in a way not seen since 1998-2000. Something changed, mentally, among the players that evening and carried through this spring to those three pre-Brazil friendly matches. Watching Les Bleus gain confidence and gather momentum as they sent Norway home, drew with Paraguay in the pouring rain, and thrashed Jamaica, it was clear that something positive was underway: and that was winning. It’s amazing how much winning boosts poise, self-belief, and performance.
This confidence led to the realization of the Generation of '87. Represented by Karim Benzema, Blaise Matuidi, and Loïc Remy, the group of players born in 1987 who have for so long had so much expected of them are finally flourishing together in Brazil. The tournament enabled Benzema to find his groove and showcased the abilities and prowess of other players. The emphasis that Les Bleus play, win, and progress as a team unit is another reason why the team will go far.
Team camaraderie is another factor in France’s favor. As I and others have noted, it appears to the outside world that the players genuinely like each other and enjoy spending time as a team playing together. It made France a team headline, not a pack of individual stars, and these are the teams that go far.
Lastly, the pressure is off. Les Bleus have accomplished what they set out to do in Brazil: to make sure that everyone knows that 2010 was an aberration. Moreover, France progressed out of the group stage, surely a good image for the country that will host Euro 2016. The initial pressures are thus alleviated. Certainly there’s an entirely new set of stresses on the team to win when they square off in Friday’s game against Germany, but they can play freed of the worry of not living up to expectations. Maybe they can play with the same zest and élan that they did against Switzerland.
Will all of this be enough to usher France past their old World Cup adversary? The previous three times France encountered a German team at the tournament, in 1958, 1982, and 1986, it was that of the German Federal Republic (West Germany)—with very mixed results. While Les Bleus handily won the 1958 contest, the 1980s were a different matter. Who can forget the 1982 semi-final when West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher blitzkreig’d France’s Patrick Battiston? The move knocked the Frenchman unconscious for a half hour and left him with cracked ribs and damaged vertebra. France lost that game on penalty kicks. The 1986 rematch also proved less than satisfactory. France lost, 0-2, in Guadalajara.
Yet, that 1982 game was important, as it marked the resurrection of French football after a period of crises that lasted from the early 1960s through the late 1970s. At the time, the football calamity was tied to the larger French sports crisis and evolved around a lack of victories. Labor issues also factored into the sense of looming disaster. In the early 1970s, the FFF reformed their system in order identify, develop, and instill greater technicality in young players—effectively, establishing the early youth academies with paid apprenticeships of a sort. The “Platini generation” of the 1980s—those who led the 1982 and 1986 World Cup runs and won the 1984 European Championship—demonstrated that tinkering with the system produced results. Victories helped legitimize French football at the game’s highest level. France’s next game may be seen in a similar vein: a relaunch of a reformed Les Bleus after years of crises.
If Les Bleus can beat Germany, count on them to go all the way this summer. The feeling of hope, that this time it is okay to dream, followed me out of FFF headquarters last month and clearly has infected Les Bleus and the French public. How big can you dream?