Nickname: Les Bleus
Rankings: FIFA (16), Elo (15), SPI (13)
Euro History: Champions (1984, 2000), Semifinals (1996), Quarterfinals (2004), Qualified (1992, 2008)
Last Five Tournaments: GS – GS – F – QF – GS
France recalled Zidane and Co. for an inspired run to the 2006 World Cup Final. That masked a lot of flaws. Though talented, the country has been in a malaise, more or less, since winning Euro 2000, exacerbated if not inspired by doddering, astrology-loving head coach Raymond Domenech. The French have failed to win a match at their last two major tournaments, and been outscored by a combined 10-2 margin.
New coach Laurent Blanc has raised a team from the ashes, though they don’t appear to be a phoenix quite yet.
Qualification: France qualified first from Group D, one point ahead of second-place Bosnia and Herzegovina. Les Bleus earned a 6-1-3 record and outscored opponents 15-4. Their 1-0 loss at home to Belarus was a notable lowlight. Though, that was their last loss and it was in September 2010. Since then, they have a 14-0-6 record, including wins over Germany, Brazil and England.
Coach: The French coach is 46-year-old Laurent Blanc. He’s considered one of the all-time great French national team players, with 97 caps and medals from victories in the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. He also had a fine club career, playing for the likes of Barcelona, Inter Milan and Manchester United. As a coach, he led Bordeaux to a second-place finish his first season and a Ligue Un title in his second. He resigned after his third season, shortly before accepting the French job.
Squad: France has elite talent. Blanc has not quite figured out how to deploy it yet. They are loaded up front. Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema dropped about 20lbs last summer, which led to a monster season. He had 28 goals and 12 assists in 36 starts in La Liga and the Champions League. Oliver Giroud, a 25-goal scorer for Ligue Un winners Montpellier, is more than a capable backup.
The French midfield impresses as well. Whether it’s a 1-4 or 2-3 alignment, it should consist of Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri, Florent Malouda and Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye. The once concern there is defensive midfield. Yann M’Vila, 21, has become a stalwart there for France, though he’s questionable for the first match with England after suffering an ankle injury. His presumed replacement Alou Diarra is coming off an underwhelming season for Marseilles.
France’s back four could be a problem. Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes are a dubious central defense partnership (not sure why Laurent Koscielny is on the bench). They could be vulnerable against some of the more physically imposing strikers in their group, such as England’s Andy Carroll and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They are a little bit better at fullback. Mathieu Debuchy should play on the right, with either Patrice Evra (experienced) or Gael Clichy (in much better form) starting on the left. Captain Hugo Lloris is a very solid goalkeeper.
Tactics: Blanc should opt for either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1. Essentially, France will try to dominate the midfield with skill and numbers, holding possession and letting their creative players create scoring chances.
Racial Quotas: Though absolved of wrongdoing, Blanc was caught up last year in recorded discussions at an FFF meeting about imposing racial quotas in France to promote white French players within French youth academies. Blanc reportedly favored the idea, but was cleared of wrongdoing. Twelve of his 23-man squad are of Black African or Muslim descent.
Dark Horse: The winner of Group D faces the second-place team in Group C in the quarterfinals. Assuming Spain wins Group C as expected, the winner of that quarterfinal can get into the semifinals without facing Spain, Germany or the Netherlands. If France plays to its potential, that spot in the semifinal should be theirs. Upsetting Germany may be another matter. They are as good as anyone going forward, but the central defense weakness should cost them eventually.
Fun Fact: An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 French people live in London. They will now have their own MP in France’s parliament and be able to vote in French elections.
[Photos via Getty]