There weren’t a lot of people talking about France when the World Cup began. Brazil and Argentina were fancied, with those two you often only have to dust off old articles, the finalists from four years ago, Holland, were mentioned, Italy will always be contenders and little Belgium suddenly seemed to have found a gathering of fine players. Spain, of course, had all the stars and as they fell over the precipice, no one could say “I told you so”. But France?
And why would you talk about France? They were 2-0 down going into a qualifier, they were huffing and puffing, and the emotional French, after the high of the November qualification had subsided, were more realistic than wildly optimistic. There was a head butt in 2006 and a revolt in a bus in 2010, and lurid tales of the escapades of some players emerged from time to time.
And then, for different reasons, they lost Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery. Most people would have had these two in their most favoured line up. Ribery, remember, got more votes at the Ballon d’Or than Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Robben and Iniesta. And the manager had made a big call by leaving out Nasri saying he was a trouble maker. He was willing to lose an influential player to have, as he believed, eleven pulling together.
In such a situation, teams could end up looking at what they don’t have. At the first sign of trouble, they can lapse into thinking they are without their best players. Fate can be invoked, the manager’s calls can be questioned. Each player could have started thinking he knew better.
OPPORTUNITY IN ADVERSITY
Some teams, very well-led teams, though can turn adversity into opportunity. Without the umbrella of the stars, players can discover themselves; the knowledge that they can win can liberate them from the bonds of negativity. Those that remain can almost become twice the players. I read a little line in one of the reports on France’s 5-2 win over Switzerland. “Ribery has not been missed” it said and that is a tribute to the manager and the spirit he has injected the side with.
It reminded me of Australia’s first game at the 2003 World Cup of cricket. Without Michael Bevan and Darren Lehmann, through injury and suspension (and, as it turns out, similar to the situation with France now), their batting had a hole in the middle.
And on the morning of their first game, they lost Shane Warne, the champion having failed a drug test. Many teams would have come apart, would have erred on the side of caution, waited for the clouds to pass. They found a hero in Andrew Symonds who may, otherwise, have not got a game.
In fact, Symonds wasn’t the player the selectors wanted in the first place. Ricky Ponting insisted on having him and the selectors went with the captain’s preference for the last slot in the squad. Symonds knew, therefore, that he had the captain’s backing as the players picked in Nasri’s absence for France knew they were the ones the manager rated.
Australia went on to win the 2003 World Cup and the captain, only appointed to that role a year earlier, was the real star. I don’t know how far France will go here but clearly, Didier Deshcamps has created a climate where the remaining stars, Benzema, Giroud, Cabaye, Evra and the others believe they are the chosen ones. Those that leave a side sometimes strengthen it and it seems at this early stage in the tournament that France are experiencing that.