World Cup Hope: Why This Could Be France's Year
It’s July 9, 2006 in Berlin, Germany, and the World Cup Final is into the first period of extra time, 109 minutes played to be exact. The score is tied at one, and it’s looking more and more likely that the tournament will come down to a penalty shootout. There's a commotion in the middle of the pitch causing Italian defender, Marco Materazzi, to fall to the ground grieving in pain with France’s Zinedine Zidane looking down on him. In his last professional soccer game, Zidane, the most storied player in France’s history, on the sport’s biggest stage, received a straight red and was ejected from the World Cup. This would go down in the history of the sport as one of its most memorable moments. It would also turn out to be the peak of French soccer, and inherently, its slow decline.
Since the infamous headbutt, France has only managed one win in three major tournaments. They failed to make it out of the Group stages in both the Euro 2008 and the World Cup in 2010. In the Euro 2012, Les Bleus did manage to escape their group, only to lose 2-0 to the eventual champions, Spain. To continue the theme, in their run to qualify for this summer’s World Cup, France was forced to play a two-leg elimination playoff against the Ukraine. After losing the first leg 2-0 in the Ukraine, France managed to pull out a 3-0 win in Saint-Denis on a 72 minute goal by Momadou Sakho just to qualify.
So with all of this going against them, why is France the fifth-ranked team according to our analytics with a nERD score of 3.05, equal to that of one of the perpetual favorites in Germany? Why do they have a 9.71% chance of winning the tournament, which nearly doubles England's chances?
The first reason, which is the obvious one, is that France landed in the favorable Group E. While Switzerland will definitely be no pushover, Ecuador and Honduras are clearly underdogs against the French.
The second reason for the optimism regarding France’s World Cup hopes is a seemingly aggressive change in culture. Led by Coach Didier Deschamps, the French national team has taken a different approach to this summer’s tournament. Instead of just trotting out his eleven best individual players and hoping for the best, Deschamps took a much more thoughtful approach in picking his final 23-man roster by putting an emphasis on team cohesion. He left one of the country’s top five players, Samir Nasri, at home because of his antics during the 2012 Euro. Even with the injury to Franck Ribery, he stuck to his guns and refused to call Samir up. Instead, he brought in Morgan Schneiderlin, a young and athletic player for the center of his midfield. These are the decisions that have changed the culture amongst the French team, and could propel them into a deep run this summer.
The team itself is built to compete against anyone in the world. Their goalie and captain, Hugo Lloris, is known to be top five in the world at his position. The defense is one of the strongest in the World Cup. Led by two veterans on the outside, Patrice Evra of Manchester United and Bacary Sagna of Arsenal, they're a versatile group. Laurent Koscielny, who's coming off of the best season in his career, will patrol the middle of the defense, and alongside him will be a number of young talented players (Mamadou Sako, Eliaquim Mangala, Raphael Varane, Lucas Digne). Even with Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri out of this tournament, the midfield is still one that makes your mouth water. Veteran players Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matudi and Mathieu Valbuena will be the nuts and bolts of this group. But the stars here are the young and exciting talents of Remy Cabella, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, who is perhaps the best player of all.
Pogba is the first world-class box-to-box midfielder France has had since Patrick Vieira. He will be the key for France this summer, and he seems to have settled into his role comfortably. At the young age of 21, Pogba has been on the radar of most soccer fans for a while. With a player as talented as him in the ranks there is no wonder there is so much excitement for France’s World Cup odds.
The team is rounded out with a solid group of experienced strikers. Karim Benzema of Real Madrid is coming off of one of his most accomplished seasons in Spain. Olivier Giroud, who was a late bloomer in soccer terms, finally settled in nicely this past season netting 22 goals for Arsenal. To further bolster the group, Deschamps called on the services of Loic Remy. Remy offers a different style of player than what they have in Benzema and Giroud. This will add much needed versatility to Frances attack in Brazil.
From top to bottom, Les Bleus have one of the strongest teams in the World Cup. They have a perfect mixture of seasoned veterans and hungry young talent which will help them adapt to any opponent they face in Brazil. They offer, for the first time in a long time, a reason to believe. After the Zidane incident, the French team seemed to lose its direction. They wandered in and out of tournaments, just happy to be there. This year, we're all expecting much more from the team, with a chance to return to the glory of the late '90s and early 2000s.
Under the leadership of Deschamps, it’s safe to say that France is deserving of their lofty projections. And they may even live up to them.