France are in a vulnerable position heading into the 2022 World Cup, and Australia could take full advantage next week.
The Socceroos begin their World Cup campaign on Wednesday morning, going up against the defending champions – who have shown in past tournaments that they are capable of total capitulation.
A slew of injuries have plagued France in the past couple of weeks, and while there’s still plenty of class throughout their squad, there’s the tiniest glimmer of hope for the green and gold faithful.
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Speaking on the Football Weekly podcast, French journalist Philippe Auclair predicted that Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe, and Antoine Griezmann would all start against Australia, but that each had a cloud hanging over them.
“Benzema – his physical state, and his mental state – we’re not too sure about. Griezmann has been playing 30 minutes per game because of a strange contractual situation,” he said.
“Mbappe has had a very complicated year, in terms of mental problems and problems with his club. He’s scored some unbelievable goals and played some wonderful football, but he also hasn’t been quite as together as we would hope him to be.”
Coach Didier Deschamps’ position at the helm has remained tenuous, despite the team’s success.
“The other thing we shouldn’t forget is that the atmosphere within the French federation at the moment is absolutely catastrophic, and that is bound to have an impact,” Auclair said.
“It’s Deschamps’ last big competition, there’s no doubt about that, there’s the growing shadow of a certain of a Zinedine Zidane behind him, and there’s a feeling that everything is falling apart at the French FA, so the atmosphere is awful, absolutely awful.
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“The atmosphere is poor, and it does remind me too much of 2002. When we arrived without Robert Pires, who had been injured for Arsenal, Zizou [Zidane] was not ready and injured himself.”
Much like Senegal did 20 years’ ago, Auclair believes that Australia will be keen to cause an upset.
“The first game is against Australia, right? And an Australian team that basically will have absolutely no fear,” he said.
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France are among the favourites for the World Cup, but have been prone to blow-ups in some recent tournaments.
Even in 2006, when they made it all the way to the final, the campaign is best remembered for their star player, Zinedine Zidane, headbutting Italy defender Marco Materazzi and being sent off.
2002 – Injuries, red cards, and a shock loss
Arsenal star Robert Pires missed the tournament with injury, while Zidane was injured in a pre-tournament friendly against co-hosts South Korea.
Still, an opening match against Senegal represented an opportunity for the reigning champions to shake off any cobwebs and get their heads on straight for the rest of the tournament. How could a nation playing in their first World Cup, ranked 67th in the FIFA rankings, provide any sort of resistance to the holders?
David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry missed plenty of chances, the former hitting the post and the latter the crossbar, as the underdogs held on.
In their second match against Uruguay, Henry was shown a straight red card in a dull 0-0 affair, meaning that they’d go into their final match, against Denmark, needing a win to progress.
Zidane was rushed back and clearly struggled as the Danes won 2-0. France went home without a win.
2010 – Players mutiny
The failures of 2002 could be put down to a combination of bad luck, old legs and unfortunate timing – but eight years later in South Africa was an out-and-out catastrophe.
France’s qualification for the tournament was controversial in itself – they finished second in their European group behind Serbia, and were forced into a two-legged play-off with Ireland.
Henry’s handball leading to William Gallas’ decisive goal in extra time sparked outrage from the footballing world, and was a large contributor to the introduction of VAR technology in the sport going forward.
But once Les Bleus arrived in South Africa, it didn’t get any less controversial. The squad that Raymond Domenech had picked had drawn plenty of criticism, and a pre-tournament bust-up between the manager and captain Patrice Evra set the tone for what was to come.
The first game against Uruguay ended in a 0-0 stalemate, before a 2-0 loss to Mexico in their second game.
But it was during that defeat that things began to well and truly off the rails.
Striker Nicolas Anelka was subbed off at half-time following a dressing room row with the coach, and the fallout was so toxic that when Anelka refused to apologise, he was told to pack his bags and head home.
Despite Anelka’s encouragements to his remaining teammates to go out there and do their best to qualify in their last game, they opted to stand with him – refusing to speak with the media or train ahead of the clash with South Africa. Evra’s team got off the bus to sign autographs and talk to fans, before re-boarding and drawing the curtains.
Jean-Louis Valentin, the team director, resigned, calling the situation “a scandal for the French, for the young people here, for the federation and the French team.”
“They don’t want to train. It’s unacceptable. As for me, it’s over. I’m leaving the federation. I’m sickened and disgusted,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, with everything that was going on, France fell two goals behind and had midfielder Yoann Gourcuff sent off before halftime, eventually losing 2-1 to the host nation and ending their campaign on the bottom of the group.
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Where are they now? The historic Socceroos squad that went to the 2006 FIFA World Cup