There is always one nation in the World Cup that surprises everyone and overachieves, with teams such as Croatia, Turkey, South Korea and most recently Uruguay filling this role in previous tournaments. Brian Bowler gives us three reasons why Brazil 2014 could be France’s time to upset the odds.
There are a host of teams whose odds are fluctuating anywhere between 20/1 and 33/1 including many punters’ dark horse Belgium (20/1), Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal (25/1) and England’s group rivals Uruguay (33/1). Out of this group of apparent second tier teams, it is France (25/1) that could prove to be the most likely to pull of the upset and maybe even go all the way.
Picking France to win anything in football is a bit of a risk given the national team’s erratic performances at recent World Cups. One need only consider Les Bleus’ performances at the last four tournaments to get an idea of just how hit and miss they can be.
As hosts in 1998, a Zidane-inspired team went all the way to win a historic first Jules Rimet trophy. This was followed four years later by a pathetic performance, where they were dumped out at the group stage without even scoring a goal. They recaptured some form at the 2006 tournament in Germany, by losing out on penalties in the final despite being nowhere near favourites. And most recently was the debacle in South Africa where, following Nicolas Anelka’s ousting, the French team rebelled against their coach, didn’t qualify from their group and returned home in disgrace.
With this most recent embarrassment hanging over them it may seem strange to consider the French as realistic outside shots for the World Cup but if things go their way then the potential is there. There are a number of reasons for this.
1. The Leadership of Deschamps
French head-coach Didier Deschamps has a decisive role to play in this French team, more so than other head coaches at the tournament. In 2010, then coach Raymond Domenech, lost the respect of his team once things started to unravel and it became clear that he did not have the mental fortitude to deal with the furore.
Deschamps is a very different character. As captain of the successful 1998 World Cup team, as well as the 2000 European Championships team, he was seen as a leader amongst the squad. This was not because of his footballing talent, his technical skills were rather limited, but it was because he led by example and inspired his team mates. While the likes of Zidane and Djorkaeff provided the attacking flair, it was Deschamps who was the beating heart of France’s most successful team.
Deschamps has made some very clever decisions in the build up to this World Cup. Firstly he hasn’t avoided the controversy which surrounded events four years ago and has in fact acknowledged that it is something which must be used to build character, saying:
“No one can erase 2010, there will always be a future and a past.”
By doing this he has taken away some of the shame around what happened and enabled his players to go into this tournament without any fear.
The dropping of Samir Nasri from the squad is the other important thing Deschamps has done, and he has had no qualms discussing this topic either, “My job is to see that no one can endanger the balance of the group.” Deschamps has obviously made the conscious decision of putting team morale and unity at the forefront of his squad selection, understandable considering events in South Africa.
2. A Strong, Balanced Squad
While this French squad might not have the same number of obvious world class talents as their German or Argentine counterparts, what it does have is a strong balance to the team.
Hugo Lloris is a top class goalkeeper and in front of him the defence boasts a good mix of experience, with the likes of Patrice Evra, Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny, and youth, with Raphael Varane and Eliaquim Mangala two of Europe’s most sought after centre backs.
The loss of Franck Ribery is a blow but the Bayern winger has suffered a startling dip in form in recent months and may not be missed as much as he would have been in previous seasons. Despite Ribery’s absence, the midfield shows a good variety of different options with Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye seen as deep lying players. Mathieu Valbuena and Antoine Griezmann are obvious attacking threats and in Paul Pogba the French have a player who, still just 21 years old, may prove to be one of the best midfielders of his generation.
Finally up front Loic Remy, Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema are all in their prime and offer a healthy combination of strength, speed and skill.
As stated earlier it may not be the best squad on paper but star power is not the only factor that needs considering. Look at Brazil’s 2006 squad which had Kaka, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Adriano. On paper, this attacking quarter could not be stopped yet they failed to gel when it really mattered and ultimately disappointed. Similar fears could be relayed about this year’s Argentina squad who, with Messi, Aguero, Higuain and Lavezzi seem quite top heavy, or this year’s Germany squad who seem to contain about 30 midfielders. France have a balance and if they can perform well as a unit then they may cause a few upsets.
3. A Favourable Draw
A favourable draw is crucial to World Cup success. Given the amount of games teams have to play in such a short period of time, and considering the hot and humid conditions in which much of this year’s tournament will take place, rest and energy conservation will be a crucial factor.
Teams who are safely through after their first two group games, or those who have less intense battles in their opening few matches, will have a distinct advantage over those who have had to scrap and claw their way to the knockout rounds.
The draw has been extremely kind to the French, with Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras providing their opposition. France should, and I’m stressing the word should here, top that group without a huge amount of difficulty and if they do, a second round tie against World Cup debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina will more than likely be their reward.
Navigate this tie and the French will find themselves at the quarter final stage where anything is possible. Compare this with Belgium for example who, if they top their group, will be facing the prospect of a daunting tie against possibly Portugal. Similarly Netherlands and Chile look set to battle it out for runners up in their group behind Spain, their reward for which will be a date with Brazil in the last 16. As with all sporting events, a certain amount of luck is required to succeed and the draw could well be an important slice of luck if France are to excel.
As stated previously, predicting a winner of a World Cup can sometimes be a bit of a lottery, especially if punters are to look beyond the tournament favourites for some market value. France can at times be erratic and are perhaps as likely to disappoint as they are to impress but with Deschamps at the helm, a favourable draw on their side and a strong, balanced squad travelling to Brazil, they look the most likely to usurp one of the tournaments “big four” and make a deep run into the knockout rounds.
Here’s the FIFA profile on Les Bleus ahead of the World Cup:
Brian Bowler, Pundit Arena