Immediately reminiscent of 2014’s Brazilian melodrama, the 2016 European Championships saw Didier Deschamps’ France undoubtedly suffocated by their hosting duties – aside from romping to victory over the jubilant Icelanders and carrying momentum into a clinical ousting of Joachim Löw’s stuttering Germany, never able to truly shake the manacles of public expectation.
Not producing any particularly inspiring sides, the tournament will surely be remembered as a relative damp squib compared to its predecessors; albeit in the context of celebrating traditionally lesser nations and allowing them a stage on which to test, and encouragingly assert, their mettle. For Deschamps, defeat to often-turgid, yet undoubtedly hearty, Portugal on a momentous Paris evening could be conceived as the lesser of two evils, at least when now approaching their true ambition – this summer’s World Cup. Once downed by the cult status-defining strike of perennial substitute Eder, after all, there would be no deflecting of questions of ill-performance by an achievement-infatuated media. The only particular qualm since, ominously, has involved the hangover of such symptoms – held to a qualification stalemate by Luxembourg in Toulouse? Embarrassing, to say the least.
Seemingly unable to balance the embarrassment of riches at his disposal throughout a near-six-year reign, former World Cup-winning captain Deschamps certainly has a task to ensure Hugo Lloris replicates such feats in Russia. For only a naïve individual would it appear that significant deviation from these trends will occur and hand the generation of Griezmann, Mbappé, Dembélé, Varane, Pogba, Umtiti, Lemar and Kanté global glory ahead of the inspired – and shackle-free – Brazilians, self-reinventing Germans or resurgent Spanish, yet we must temper such exalting sentiment with the consideration that a glimmer of fortune may not be far from French grasps; lest we forget Thierry Henry downing Irish hearts, or recompense for Zinedine Zidane’s final act.
The practicalities of the argument are, nonetheless, regrettable for Noël Le Graët, if not a result of his own corporate styling of la Fédération Française de Football (the French Football Federation, or FFF). If the English administrative establishment was deemed outdated and unmoving, 76-year-old FFF President Le Graët – in place since 2011, following a prior six-year tenure as vice-president – has profited from the misfortune of predecessors like few others in such lofty positions, while surviving to this stage chiefly due to adept financial management. A domineering business figure in his native Côtes-d'Armor region – specifically Guingamp – he cultivated the nous for the role in a tenure as Ligue 1 President from 1991 to 2000, interspersing his loyalties to En Avant de Guingamp, where he indeed made his name as a callous administrator unafraid of regular managerial causalities. Despite his apparent high regard in the region – in all but the managerial demographic, of course – his enforced divorce from the Guingamp chairmanship from 1992 to 2002 was otherwise the club’s most profitable spell, and remains so to date; after he laid the foundations, beginning in the early 1970s, with a sustained spell in Division 2 and earned them professional status, the outfit evolving to again obtain promotion to the renamed second division in 1993-94 and in the three subsequent years win their first promotion to Ligue 1 and adorn such feats with joint-winning honours at their first ever continental competition in the 1996 Intertoto Cup (albeit against exclusively post-Communist opposition, Finnish outfit Jaro aside) and a runners-up result in the 1997 Coupe de France (in a vastly weakened field).
While Le Graët gained the occupancy of mayoral responsibilities, unsurprisingly, in Guingamp – representing the then-coalition-reliant Parti socialiste – during an era of constantly relocating honours, post-Marseille dominance, in his Ligue 1 administration, his political motivations would be made scarcely inconspicuous. Now an elderly, yet irresistible figure of absolute obduracy from his position to his fashion – continuing to tout the comb over, oversized glasses and slightly-dishevelled tie of decades previous on his maniacally diminutive frame – it would be churlish, not least as a figure representative solely of an ailing establishment, to expect his re-election if international honours were not restored to the nation of impervious 1998 World Cup-winning exploits.
Surprisingly subservient on the international stage in all examples other than their late ‘90s hosting, and the infamous events of Ronaldo-gate, the motherland of Michel Platini, Raymond Kopa, Jean Tigana, Marius Trésor, Just Fontaine and Jules Rimet had long fallen foul of Brazilian brilliance, Argentine artistry and more local tactical innovation before a star-studded line-up becalmed the nation pre-millennium. Since, a second European Championship title and consecutive Confederation Cups entered into the sparsely populated national trophy cabinet, yet disaster in their title defence in 2002; even with 1998 manager Aimé Jacquet installed as technical director, his earlier assistant Roger Lemerre buckling under the pressure of the role and Jacques Santini surprisingly resigning before former under-21 helmsman Raymond Domenech, while forging a squad entirely in his image with Jacquet’s departure and a record gained as managing the most matches of any such Blues employee, carried the squad through two radically contrasting World Cup campaigns; the latter arguably the nation’s lowest ever point, when they should have been buoyed by news only a fortnight earlier of their selection for hosting duties of the 2016 Euros. Throughout, an imposing generation of diverse talents – so happening to represent the diversity of the nation and its colonial past in North Africa, the Caribbean, South America, West Africa and beyond – experienced the social upheaval of vociferous racially-motivated criticism from Front national leader Jean Marie Le Pen and his supporters but were emphatic in their mental infallibility. Eventually, discord told against Domenech and his former youth players at both Euro 2008 and during ropey 2010 qualification, until frayed loyalties spilled over and eventual blaspheming implosion occurred in the lavish backdrop of the Western Cape’s Pezula Resort.
If not reimagining, certainly rebuilding with Laurent Blanc – perhaps pre-emptive in his decision to resign after Euro 2012 – and Deschamps, the FFF, free of the unenviable events of South Africa in the expulsion of the dissenting Nicolas Anelka and resignations of Domenech and President Jean-Pierre Escalettes (an FFF loyalist rewarded with regular promotions after joining the institution in 1985), invested in beacons with whom former and present players could console, and who had performed admirably at Bordeaux and Marseille, respectively.
A fatal flaw in their domestic-professing theory, however, was, and remains, the perpetual frailties of Ligue 1 on the continental stage. Since the dissolution of Bernard Tapie’s fortune and Marseille momentum, and defined by the eventual early 2000s supremacy of Olympique Lyonnais, the innovation of the French first division has been minimal in its presence, with economic strength given greater implicature on the direction of silverware, and of continental representation. The nation’s eviction from such a prestigious stage has been emphatic in recent seasons, and with the mounting managerial fatalities of Paris St Germain – Blanc, Carlo Ancelotti and now set to include Unai Emery – has proven detrimental to entire careers with Qatari funds seen as spurned in search of glory on the ultimate Champions League podium.
Let alone the of abundant comparative qualms of their competitors, if PSG and AS Monaco are revelling in a relative Renaissance of academy production at present, the direction in which these graduates can drive their employers, if so given the opportunity, is mired in uncertainty. While the horrifically unethical Paris are deemed a long-term project, yet to be brought to fruition in the first season even of Neymar’s record-annihilating transfer and with Kylian Mbappé soon to seal his permanent switch, few others are making consistent progress; Monaco liquidated of assets, as with others, by the Parisian behemoth and subsequently unable to sustain any genuine threat, while Ligue 1 and UEFA authorities watch on in aimless apathy. The true extent of this domestic demise will be painfully apparent in what may prove Deschamps’ final managerial action. Albeit decorated with vast continental honours elsewhere in their squad, Mbappé, Thomas Lemar and Djibril Sidibé aside this summer, the French may be bereft of significant Ligue 1 representation. Moreover, with the league saturated by amoral economics, fans have little other than the national side to take genuine pride in.
If domestic issues are existential, however, Deschamps’ tactical foundations have been found wanting far too often for a nation with potent aspirations on honours this summer. Unlike the financial stranglehold of PSG, and to an extent Monaco, this is a pervading error for which the FFF are held fully accountable, and one that could have conceivably been resolved at a much earlier stage. Once emerging from Euro 2016, however, their cards were dealt; unless a seismic personal matter arose for the Bayonne-born 49-year-old and forced his resignation, nothing would depose a regime they had invested heavily, and certainly after a home tournament in which accolades were so tangible, irreversibly in. Non, je ne regrette rien, they could not argue – at least not without appearing bare-faced frauds.
To truly comprehend French football’s apparent systemic underachievement, nonetheless, a perspective encompassing of the innate cultural factors of the state is imperative. As aforementioned, football has not traditionally proven the form of choice, nor the scene mastered, by the stereotypical Frenchman, and instead profited vastly from the nation’s colonial heritage and cosmopolitan present, while cultivated specifically by the maverick figures within its expanse; the mercurial philosopher Eric Cantona, extraverted exponent Jacquet, serene master Zinedine Zidane et al. each indicative of the global popularity of France’s distinguished interpretation of the sport. The Black, Blanc, Beur (the last being an informal term used to describe Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian migrants) identity interwoven in their every act long before its coinage as a term in the late 1990s, Les Blues nonetheless have a negligible impression on their managerial history from such ethnically diverse skillsets. Perhaps akin to elite-level French politics and socio-economic superiority, ethnic natives have dominated the role in the history of the side; all but Marrakech-born Fontaine, in a temporary 1967 stint, and the generation-defining Romanian Ștefan Kovács, figures of the Western European elite. Regardless, by virtue of his prophetic allowances and patronage of former Reims and Monaco player Michel Hidalgo when the future Euro 1984-winning manager had no prior senior professional experience, the late Kovács may have claims on a repute as the most momentous appointment ever made by those within the FFF; even when lasting only two years in the role, and returning a win percentage, while instigating institutional transition, as low as 40%.
Courting controversy and rivalry throughout the early history of formalised French football, the true native architects of the sport set a great precedent that casts, rather poetically, today. This was, after all, a nation left behind by the global footballing trend while distanced from British compatriots and occupied itself with the return of the Olympic catalogue through Baron de Coubertin. Amidst the pioneering de Coubertin protégé Rimet’s reformation of the sport from within both FIFA and the FFF – socialist principles espoused through the formation of Paris’ Red Star, yet undermined with mass bureaucratic failing during the conspicuously fascist Italy’s 1934 World Cup hosting – Englishman Sid Kimpton had introduced tactical stringency to the French with his WM formation, and thus British-professing, philosophy in the early 1930s, yet quickly ran into conflict with a native backroom triumvirate headed by the moustachioed Gaston Barreau, the ultimate figurehead of the establishment who managed to manipulate proceedings and assert power for the entirety of the interwar era.
Even today, the FFF are yet to truly relapse on their subservience to an almost alarmingly, but not nationally atypical, patriotic status quo; though striving to become a more diverse administrative establishment, the fulfilment of this practice is far from the genuine realisation many continue to campaign for. The harsh reality is that they have stagnated as an operative force since the idolised fecund days, and through the election of Escalettes and Le Graët opted to retain their existing fortunes, as opposed to drastically reinventing in search of further glory. Theirs was a narrow perspective with falsified ambitions – sadly, it remains so to this very day.
Progress, undoubtedly, also stems from youth. Deplorably, of the various Les Bleuts (Little Blues) ranks, their under-21 side has not qualified for the UEFA European U21 Championships since 2006, as the generation of Sagna, Mandanda, Lassana Diarra, Yoann Gourcuff, Jérémy Toulalan and Mathieu Flamini led the nation to the semi-finals in one of only two post-1998 finals appearances, while the under-19 ranks, though finishing European champions in 2005, 2010 and 2016 and running to the semi-finals at least in all appearances since 2005, have not featured at more than two consecutive tournaments throughout this run; consistently lacks. Guided by contrasting figures in former Lorient manager Sylvain Ripoll and 1998 squad member Bernard Diomède, the continuity between the outfits has proven minimal, favouring few products in recent years other than, most prominently, Mbappé, Jean-Kévin Augustin and Odsonne Édouard – three of very few figures in direct proximity to elite academy facilities while at Monaco and PSG. If the nation is indeed to enter the lofty stratums of sporting favour, focus must be placed on spreading burdens and sharing fortunes, never to be solely reliant on, nor biased towards, the financial centrepieces of domestic affairs.
None of this apparently discouraging evidence serves to condemn them as a failed, or indeed failing, nation, however; at the very least, Ripoll’s under-21s have all but sealed qualification for the 2019 European Championship, while an Amine Gouiri-inspired U19 outfit will head to Finland this summer with quiet designs on the European Champs title. As with every popular opinion, there is a degree of validity within the lauding of their talent pool’s sheer depth. Optimism still shrouds the possibility of Deschamps assuming a more intrepid and accountable philosophy. Most importantly this summer, the very impudence of youth may favour an unproven Les Blues.
Certainly, whilst afflicted by recurrent cultural and administrative deficiencies – some of which may be at present unshakeable – they are far from the pedigree of world champions. Yet the competitive advantage they held over England, Poland, Belgium, Portugal – economically-driven, granted, but most imperatively of their sheer back catalogue of highly-qualified coaches and cutting-edge facilities – and other such mid-ranking nations in the past has dissipated rapidly with little French response; the originally Kovács-influenced Clairefontaine, nor its regional compatriots both as youth academies and multi-age group headquarters, no longer the unique facility it was once so acclaimed. It is a self-evident truth that had the squad inherited by Lemerre and Santini not experienced such gratuitous overarching triumph in Euro 2000 and both the 2001 and 2003 Confederation Cup tournaments, the FFF philosophy may, if not adapting to that of an opportunist, at least shirked from its complacent rigidity, and that the latter tournament was indicative of this; after experiencing the implausibility of 2002, their rhetoric was usefully rebuffed, after avoiding world champions Brazil as a drastically second-string South American squad exited at the group stage, on home turf. This is not to say their systems did not command such results at that stage; in 2006, also, the squad fielded was stacked with perennial club medallists and helmed sustainably by Domenech, but as Sepp Blatter aided socio-economically inferior nations for corrupt means and globalisation branded the industry with an indelible mark, their systemic ideology, as opposed to any managerial conceptualisation, was found vulnerable while obstinate.
Though culpable for ideological complacency and a failure to recognise simmering dissent, those in power could not help the private plotting of Anelka, Patrice Evra and a permanently nameless supporting assembly in 2010. An optimist, regardless, would deem it to have at least presented an emphatic message for constitutional reform – in far more respects than the employment of 1998’s icons, seemingly fulfilling roles with equal importance as youth mentors as the national “shop window” position, as so termed by Brian Clough. Fundamentally, it is irresponsible of the FFF to simply recycle prior success and repackage it as a vision for the future; the external advancement that sees Thierry Henry and Claude Makélélé plying their trade as assistant managers while Zidane and Patrick Vieira gain their managerial stripes, must be viewed far more objectively than the sentimental FFF have been proven to fall liable to with past appointments.
2016 represented their opportunity to change direction. While capturing the antithesis of Domenech’s regime – fluid, multi-faceted, youthfully exuberant in each act – defensive frailties showed. Supporter unrest reared as selections were deemed unmeritocratic. When it mattered most, the squad’s biggest characters cowered from the limelight. It was a learning process, granted, considering Deschamps’ squad – deprived of Raphaël Varane by injury – featured within its ranks the unproven Samuel Umtiti, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman and even N’Golo Kante (at the time capped only four times), but generally he, a coach in elite management since playing retirement in 2001, had selected a diaspora that was deeply entrenched on such a stage – Messrs Evra, Sagna, Gignac, Mandanda and Lloris each remnants of prior regimes. Resultantly, there was nowhere, truly, to hide.
Though bright young things Mbappé, Dembélé, Lemar and potentially breakout defensive starlets Presnel Kimpembe and Benjamin Pavard bolster these youthful ranks this summer, I would suggest an excuse on these lines cannot be realistically posed by Deschamps if he fails to deliver victory, or perhaps a runners-up or semi-final exit if deemed to represent a vast improvement in performance, through them.
In football, such is the beauty of the sport, the opportunity for redemption is never lost. Though it may require great patience to plot and enact a reprise of former glories – albeit in a revamped guise – it is always possible, especially for a nation of France’s political and economic security, let alone might, to manipulate the field. Culturally, if they do not make a radical adaptation – appointing a technical director, à la Dan Ashworth, Oliver Bierhoff or Fernando Hierro, at the very least – and position the correct processes, a German or (whisper it quietly) English recovery may be beyond their means. Far from the drama of Italian and Dutch grievances, perhaps, yet the spectres of such peril should loom large over any establishment figurehead who laughs off the very suggestion of this capitulation.
A peculiar prophecy it may seem to decry a nation presently ranked ninth in the FIFA World Rankings, particularly when Deschamps’ outfit are tipped so fervently for Russian glory, but it is not without its credence. Face value is indeed a deceptive force in this sport, and given the tactical versatility so revered within French ranks, the apparent embarrassment of riches has instead rebranded itself as a blessing in spite of, and hindered by, intermittent and unforgiving administrative circumstances. No competitor this summer is faultless, that is to say, but the eradication of such conditional infringements is as integral a foreboding feature of success as any tactical mastery, it must be argued. Unless willing to impart education on oneself as an administrator, this necessity is rendered immeasurably more difficult. Quite simply, the obdurate French culture must alter, initiating with studies of overseas accomplishments and enacted with unprecedented courage and unbending constitutional commitment. Unfortunately for Deschamps, it will not occur in the two months ahead.
Fare well France – may your fortunes always be fair.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!