France Preview: Young, Dynamic, and will look the best on the cover of Teen Magazine!
20 years ago, the French National Team’s rainbow ensemble, spanning four continents of heritage, brought the nation an unadulterated exhilaration through its diverse and wholly cohesive squad. It was a glorious moment of unity, led by the glorious trickery of Zidane but contributions throughout that gave France a glimpse into how fraternite might enter a new and overdue stage. 20 years out, much progress seems erased, with Le Pen’s National Front mirroring xenophobic tides across the globe, and thus enters a dazzlingly talented, young, and thoroughly multicultural French side. Is there a rudder amongst the group when the seas get choppy? Perhaps that is the biggest question around the squad, the most expensive national team by transfer fees in the world--and those numbers could skyrocket with a cashout performance. Additionally, there's so much talent that any problems will lead to immediate second-guessing...and given some of the enigmatic performances by their brightest stars, one can see controversy engulfing the squad. I don't envy Deschamps with the choices confronting him.
No team--outside of Brasil, perhaps--boasts quantity of electric attacking talent. A swaggering front line is led by PSG’s teen phenom Kylian Mbappe, a swift-paced finisher that some see as the next great superstar; the darting Antoine Griezemann, sent by central casting from One Direction but far more than a pretty face; and either Monaco’s superb Thomas Lemar or the breathtaking Ousmane Dembele from Barca. Dembele was hurt and/or marginally impactful for Barca this year, but to my eye has the change-of-direction and speed of the truly great ones, as he lavishly teased in the previous year with Borussia Dortmund.
The rock star theme continues with the enganche Paul Pogba, one of the most expensive players in the world, and instantly identifiable by his ability to get awesome haircuts. Pogba at his best glides, a long stride buying him space but particularly a killer in delivering a precision pass. One wants for more physicality at times, given his frame, and a bit more caution in seeking that killer pass, but he will always be an artist first, and a somewhat temperamental one though not volatile as much as sporadically finding his muse. A streaky guy, but incredible to watch when he's in the groove. He seemed at his best at Man United when a solid platform is behind him, and with Chelsea’s N’golo Kante, who rose from the 9th tier of French football to become Premier League Player of the Year, at his rear, Pogba could settle in a bit. Kante is a humble water-carrier (as the Makalele role is known), covering huge swaths of ground and a ball-winner extraordinaire. He’s an interesting destroyer, hardly fitting the physical prototype and using far less fouls to do it. If France get far, it will be because he is able to exert leadership amongst a group of stars who’ve never won much of anything--mostly, perhaps, because they’re awfully young. Blaise Maitudi is slated to start; perhaps Didier Deschamps sees him as a steady hand in a midst of hormonal youngsters, but I’ve always found him underwhelming, reasonably good at everything but not terribly good at anything (in my limited sample). A bolder look would be Bayern’s record-breaking signing Corentin Tolisso, a 23-year old full-package middie. He’s tough, has excellent vision, poise, and athleticism--and brings a winner’s pedigree that few of the other players can claim. Keep an eye out for the lad.
The back is theoretically solid at the core with questions at the edges. The elegant Raphael Varane once told Zinedine Zidane to call him back later about a Real Madrid contract, as he was studying for his philosophy final. He is now one of the old hands on the squad, a 3-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid and classy centerback. Barca’s Samuel Umtiti is his left-sided partner, though is struggling with injury; youngsters Presnel Kimpembe and Benjamin Pavard await in the wings. Questions abound at the back, though a rounding-into-health Mendy could answer everything on the left side. Spurs’ keeper Hugo Lloris is a steady hand and good with his feet, but not in the elite tier of keepers. That said, he's better than several keepers who have lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy.
This is a pretty tough team to bet on, but you could lose it all betting against them. (For the record, I don't bet). Consistency and steadiness have not been evident, and games like the 1-1 friendly to USA debutantes (and a 3-2 home defeat to an admittedly far better opponent in Colombia) have not been confidence builders. Mbappe, Dembele, Pogba and Lloris have all faced major tquestion marks this year. However, if they can find some confidence and some steel and leadership emerge on the pitch, this is a team that could bathe us in brilliance. For the sake of football and their nation, struggling as so many are to find unity in diversity, it would be great if their dreams come true. I’m pulling for them (though I’m notoriously fickle and change favorites all the time).