Les Bleus awaken from turbulent hibernation with new captain, goalie and generation
editor of NOS Sports
editor of NOS Sports
Les Bleus are waking up from a turbulent hibernation. Three experienced internationals quit, Zinédine Zidane didn’t come, Didier Deschamps signed on after all, and a “derailed” national president was ousted. In the aftermath of all that tumult, Deschamps had to choose a new captain, and that did not go smoothly either.
Friday will finally be all about the ball again for the French national team. At the start of the qualifying series for the European Championship in Germany, they will host the Dutch team in Paris. The first game for France since the lost World Cup final against Argentina.
Benzema, Le Graët and new generation
Over the winter, things were anything but quiet around the French national team. Karim Benzema, the man of 97 international appearances and winner of the Ballon d’Or in 2022, announced a day after the lost World Cup final that he was quitting as an international.
After national coach Deschamps had ignored him for years because of an extortion scandal involving a fellow international, things seemed to be looking up between the two in recent years.
But when Benzema was injured just before the first game in Qatar and Deschamps made it clear he no longer counted on his striker’s return, enough was enough. Resentment is still present, with the Real Madrid striker reportedly not attending his own farewell prior to the game against Orange.
There was also turmoil in the early days of 2023, after then national president Noël Le Graët extended the contract of national coach Didier Deschamps until 2026. Criticism of that decision and calls for Zinédine Zidane as the new national coach, Le Graët carelessly waved away by saying he had never considered Zidane as an option. “I wouldn’t even pick him up if he called,” he said.
That outburst did not go unnoticed either. Superstar Kylian Mbappé stood up for “Zizou” (“Zidane is France”), national soccer pundits Youri Djorkaeff and Djibril Cissé (“Get out!”) made their voices heard, and Zidanes former club Real Madrid reacted vehemently.
Le Graët himself resigned as union president not much later following the outcome of an investigation, in which a commission concluded that Le Graët’s behavior had been derailed at times. “In particular through ambiguous and clearly sexually oriented text messages to others,” the commission ruled.
Meanwhile, record international Hugo Lloris had announced his retirement, saying after 145 games this was “the right time.” 29-year-old Raphaël Varane also quit, he felt it was time for others. “A new generation has to take over,” he said.
Quest for captain and goalie
And in that dilemma, choosing between youngsters and the somewhat older generation, an important choice awaited Deschamps. For who was to succeed the departed captain Lloris and vice-captain Varane? Already 24-year-old Kylian Mbappé, or still 32-year-old Antoine Griezmann?
Deschamps chose Mbappé, with Griezmann as the stand-in.
“Kylian meets all the requirements to carry this responsibility. Both on the field and off it in the group, by being a binding element,” the national coach told TV channel TF1. A decision that fell wrong with Griezmann, according to French media. Wild speculation about an early departure from Les Bleus even seeped through.
But on Tuesday, the Griezmann, now retrained as a box-to-box midfielder, simply appeared on the training field with a flamingo pink cut and a big smile, hugging Deschamps. The turmoil surrounding the tie already seems to be over, but Deschamps will have to be wary in a locker room full of French cockers.
That other issue, finding a new first goalkeeper, produced fewer headaches. AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan “will be number one,” Deschamps said Monday.
With a new captain, a new goalkeeper and three debutants in the selection – Khéphren Thuram (OGC Nice), Wesley Fofana (Chelsea) and Brice Samba (RC Lens) – France starts the European Championship qualification with what is, in a sense, a new generation.
That “new” generation had been ready for some time and has already proven itself. Think of young twentysomethings Eduardo Camavinga, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konaté and Randal Kolo Muani. Don’t forget that Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé are also only 24 and 25 years old, respectively.
Add to that the experienced Olivier Giroud and Griezmann and Deschamps, after two World Cup finals in a row, simply has a selection that other national coaches will melt from in the years to come.
That constant stream of French soccer talent, where does it actually come from? In large part from the famous regional training centers, set up and run by the French Football Federation FFF. Sixteen can be found throughout France.
The country’s greatest thirteen- to fifteen-year-old talents are scouted, temporarily taken away from their clubs and brought together in such soccer boarding schools, where they train and are taught five days a week. On weekends, they go home and play matches at their home clubs. Thirty percent of the French team that became world champions in 2018 learned to play soccer at such a training program.
Clairefontaine, just southwest of Paris, also the home of the French national team, was the first to open in 1990 and is the most famous school. Thierry Henry ran around there, as did Mbappé.
Those schools are the foundation of French soccer and the final places at the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Asked about last winter’s lost final, Deschamps interrupted a journalist on Monday. “I’m sorry. What interests me is in front of us. The taste of the final, the defeat, that belongs to the past.”
Les Bleus are looking ahead, to Orange Friday and the European Championship next summer. With captain Mbappé, perhaps the greatest product ever from the French soccer factory.
In this 2018 episode of The State of Orange, we visited the Clairefontaine soccer school:
The State of Orange, episode 4: the art of training