France Seek Spirit of World Cup 98 in Troubled Times
France marched to glory on home soil at the 1984 European Championship and 1998 World Cup, and a richly gifted squad means Didier Deschamps’ side appear well-placed to repeat the trick at Euro 2016.
Even allowing for the conspicuous absence of Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema due to his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to blackmail international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena – another absentee – the depth of quality at Deschamps’ disposal is arguably the envy of the tournament.
Antoine Griezmann is coming off a career-best season with Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid, Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud’s scoring record continues to confound doubts over his capabilities for club and country, while in Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman, Deschamps can call upon two of European football’s most enthralling young livewires.
Should such players arrive for the tournament opener against Romania at the Stade de France on Friday in prime form, some of the toxic fallout from Benzema’s omission may begin to dissipate.
Paul Pogba is the powerhouse fulcrum of a midfield buoyed by N’Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet’s unexpectedly dazzling seasons for Premier League champions Leicester City and West Ham respectively, while a robust and experienced defence leaves the hosts well set.
However, they will kick-off in a capital far removed from the city enraptured by Aime Jacquet’s heroes of 1998 – the “Black-Blanc-Beur” side that embodied the multi-cultural ideal of one-nation harmony in the sweet afterglow of victory.
The famous images of one-and-a-half million fans swarming the Champs Elysees in joyous celebration after Zinedine Zidane inspired a 3-0 victory over Brazil jar against the France of today, still under a state of emergency after the Paris terror attacks of last November where 130 people were killed and the Stade de France was among the locations targeted.
The soggy, rain-lashed Paris of the week preceding Euro 2016 appeared grimly indicative of the mood in some quarters; Pogba, Griezmann and company will be charged with letting the sunshine in once more and replacing recent tears of anguish with one of joy.
In terms of overall depth of quality, France probably only find their match in Germany and Spain, the respective world and European champions.
Spain’s pursuit of a remarkable third-straight title is almost an untold story of the build-up, such was the way the nation that won its previous three major tournaments crashed and burned at the 2014 World Cup.
If the imperious Sergio Busquets can establish his usual mastery of central areas, Vicente del Bosque has a truly enviable collection of creative talents that will be unleashed to make the lives of any opponent a potential misery.
Germany’s reign as world champions has not been as magisterial as expected – the retirement of their excellent captain Philipp Lahm preceding moments of uncertainty in a qualifying campaign that featured defeats to Poland and the Republic of Ireland.
The first of those can be avenged in the group stage and, although subsequent friendly losses to France, England and Slovakia have hinted at a period of transition, few would bet against them doing so and going deep into the competition.
If Belgium’s exceptional squad can put major tournament success to their fine individual CVs they will merit being mentioned in such rarefied company, and Marc Wilmots’ men should have the edge over Italy in the Group E.
The damaging loss of influential midfielders Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio means Antonio Conte will probably helm “hopefuls” rather than “contenders” on his international farewell.
UEFA’s expanded 24-team format has helped all of the continent’s major superstars to be present and correct.
Cristiano Ronaldo will once again carry Portugal’s hopes upon the sculpted shoulders he parades so liberally, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic is keen to ensure Sweden benefit from one more mesmeric demonstration of his abilities on French soil, following his glittering farewell at Paris Saint-Germain.
Wayne Rooney captains England in a group featuring Gareth Bale and Wales – the principality turning out at a major tournament for the first time since 1958.
But, while Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions are flushed with an exciting crop of youngsters, debates from the England camp to pubs and bars via newspapers over how best to fit the Manchester United star into the side are in danger of dominating, as they did during a dreadful World Cup bid in Brazil.
Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Slovakia join Wales as tournament first-timers, although it is likely to be more familiar names dousing themselves in champagne at Saint-Denis on July 10 – the final act of what Paris and France will hope serves as a timely month of liberte, egalite and fraternite.