Nickname: Les Bleus
Schedule: June 15 vs. Honduras, June 20 vs. Switzerland, June 24 vs. Ecuador
World Cup History: Winner (1998), Finals (2006), Semifinals (1958, 1982, 1986)
Ranking: FIFA (16)
Winning Odds: 22-1
For the French at the World Cup, it has been all or nothing. Les Bleus have reached at least the World Cup semifinals five times. Every other tournament since World War II has seen them depart in the group stage or fail to qualify. The French have reached two of the last four World Cup finals (1998, 2006). The alternate trips (2002, 2010) were mind-blowing failures. Will the bipolar pattern see a similar resurgence in 2014?
Qualifying Form: France finished second to Spain in UEFA Qualifying Group I, by three points. They drew the Spanish at home, but lost 1-0 away, costing them the automatic place. France reached Brazil through the second-place playoff, overturning a 2-0 deficit to Ukraine after the first leg to win 3-2 on aggregate.
Coach: Didier Deschamps. He’s a legendary French player. He was captain of the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winners. He won the Champions League with both Marseille and Juventus. He moved immediately into club management upon retirement and has proven adept. He has won league titles at Monaco and Marseille and took Monaco to the 2004 Champions League Final. Deschamps took over France in 2012, after his former international teammate Laurent Blanc resigned.
Tactics: France plays either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, depending on how one groups the midfielders. Deschamps fields three sturdy central midfielders, two attacking wingers and a lead striker. They try to control the middle. From a solid base, they can either hold possession and build up play patiently or take quick, direct shots.
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Player to Watch: Franck Ribery. The 31-year-old Bayern Munich midfielder came in third in the 2013 Ballon d’Or voting. Conspiracy theorists have suggested a deliberate voting deadline extension cost him the award. He’s one of the world’s elite talents, the closest thing France has had to a “next Zidane.” But he has never asserted himself as a leader, for club or country. At Bayern, Ribery is one of a raft of great players. For the national team, his best effort came in 2006, surrounded by Zidane, Henry, Thuram, etc.
The French need Ribery to be the guy to be a threat deep in this tournament. Coming off a disappointing season and managing a back injury, he’s a question mark.
Squad: Talent has never been the issue for the French. The teams that flamed out in 2002 and 2010 were comparable to the successful ones in 1998 and 2006. Deschamps, knowing a thing or two about tournament success, has focused on cohesion. That focus saw Manchester City star Samir Nasri left out of the team entirely, to the chagrin of his girlfriend.
This team is strong defensively. Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris is one of the world’s strongest goalkeepers. The back four is unsettled. But the outstanding questions are ones most international coaches would love to have. Which competent, veteran right back should I choose? Can I trust the 21-year-old who started the Champions League Final for Real Madrid? Do I roll with Patrice Evra even though he’s a bit past his prime as the best left back in Europe? A sample back line of Sagna-Koscielny-Varane-Evra would be the envy of most club teams.
Midfield is also a strength. The central trio of Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba, and Yohan Cabaye is powerful, quick and adept on the ball. They defend well and can be dangerous going forward. The wingers should be Franck Ribery and Mathieu Valbuena, a club favorite of Deschamps and a more tactically true wide player than Nasri. Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud will be the preferred options up front.
The French have an excellent blend of experience, young talent and depth, the sort that can win tournaments. But do they have that guy who can step forward and make the difference in an even match?
Group Outlook: France lucked out. They drew the weakest Pot A team (Switzerland), the weakest South American team (Ecuador) and the weakest CONCACAF team (Honduras). Winning that group should get them the second-place team from Argentina’s group, either Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran or Nigeria. They won’t face an opponent on their level until the quarterfinal. That said, they had an easy route to the semifinal in 2010 too and went down in the group stage.
Traveling in Style: The French will be flitting about Brazil in this boss custom painted jet. No word on whether there training base is in a cul de sac.
Notable WAG: Ludivine Kadri Sagna is a French model and the wife of right back Bacary Sagna. She is a fan of taking selfies.
Arbitrary French Power Rankings: 1. Napoleon Bonaparte 2. Edouard Manet 3. Edith Piaf 4. Albert Camus 5. Zinedine Zidane 6. Marie Curie 7. Jacques-Louis David 8. Henry IV 9. Jules Verne 10. André the Giant
[Photos via Getty, Twitter]