It has been a month to remember for France, but it has only been possible because of a highly-charged evening in Paris almost three years ago.
It was November 2013, and after losing the first leg of their World Cup playoff 2-0 to Ukraine in Kiev, France were staring at a national humiliation—a failure to qualify for Brazil which would have emphasised divisions in the squad which had been festering for years.
The debacle—a French word which really did come to mind—of the 2010 World Cup which saw players striking and a team revolt against manager Raymond Domenech led by captain Patrice Evra, was still fresh in the nation’s mind, and all was not well amongst a squad of players who didn’t seem to trust each other.
The first leg had ended in ignominy when Laurent Koscielny was sent off, and so Didier Deschamps needed to select a new centre-back for the return leg in French capital, a match for which the hosts weren’t too hopeful.
Enter Mamadou Sakho.
The defender, a Paris native who had recently left his hometown to move from Paris Saint-Germain to Liverpool, hadn’t scored an international goal before that night. By the end of it he had two.
Sakho’s brace and a strike from Karim Benzema turned things around in France’s favour, and they were off to the World Cup in Brazil where they would reach the quarter-finals before falling to eventual winners Germany. What has this got to do with anything, you might ask? Well it just happened to be the start of everything.
Evra, no longer the captain but still a vocal presence in the group said so this week, stressing:
“We have made this group into a family.
“The breakthrough moment probably came for us in that play-off win over Ukraine because, after that, we had a good tournament in Brazil. That gave us a platform, a chance to progress.
“Now, though, we must become a nation of winners once again and the only way to do that is to end this tournament with the trophy.”
So now to that trophy.
There have been echoes of France’s 1998 World Cup success surrounding this French team and this French tournament, with the side bonding together in the face of some quite alarming social unrest.
The attacks in Paris last November—one of which occurred outside the Stade De France, whilst the sister of the current national team star Antoine Griezmann survived the horror of the Bataclan music hall—left the world stunned, and when nothing around seems to be making sense, it is sport that many people turn to for sweet relief.
This French team, buoyed by that World Cup qualification and safe in the knowledge that they had their own tournament to prepare for, were providing that relief for a frightened nation, and they have gone on doing so with their performances in a tournament which kicked off with the world watching and fearing that the unthinkable could happen again.
Deschamps’ team have shown remarkable unity in much the same way that that Class of ’98 – dubbed the ‘Blacks, Whites and Arabs’ by star man Zinedine Zidane—did, and it isn’t just the terrorism fears that they’ve had to deal with.
The Karim Benzema-Mathieu Valbeuna blackmail case was stalking Deschamps in the run up to the finals, whilst Sakho was banned from football following a doping case which only this week was thrown out with the Liverpool man proved innocent.
The centre-back – wrongly denied the chance to play in a Europa League final for his club and a home European Championships for his country – has tweeted his support for his compatriots this week, and is in Paris to watch them play in the final against Portugal. But in his absence, new stars have emerged.
Samuel Umtiti, uncapped before this tournament, will play his third international match in the final and will then travel to Catalonia to complete the formalities of a switch to Barcelona. N’Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet, previously considered to be on the fringes of the squad, have forced their way into the team thanks to their Premier League form, whilst Griezmann has become a global superstar. Sakho hasn’t been missed on the pitch at least.
Off it, he seems a likeable, happy presence who is popular with the fans and players of both France and Liverpool.
His teammates will want to win the final for him tonight, and they’ll have plenty of other reasons to want to win it too.
Few would begrudge them doing so.
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