Used to relying heavily on one key player for their European glory in the past — Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane in the 1984 and 2000 tournaments respectively — French fans have two talented players on whom to pin their hopes at Euro 2016.
Some suggested one was exhausted after a gruelling season and the other might be overrated but France’s Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba have started to prove the critics wrong.
After recovering from sluggish starts, the speedy striker and the gifted midfielder are expected to be France’s trump cards when the hosts take on world champions Germany in their semi-final on Thursday.
The form of the two players has gone hand in hand with that of the host nation, both improving to silence their critics and reassure their fans.
They each scored in a comfortable 5-2 quarter-final victory over Iceland in the quarter-finals and Griezmann now tops the scorers’ table with four goals.
The picture looked different a few weeks ago, when France coach Didier Deschamps dropped both men to the bench for his side’s second group game against Albania after they had failed to convince in a laboured 2-1 win over Romania.
They came on for the second half and Griezmann scored the first of France’s two last-gasp goals in a 2-0 win.
Pogba needed more time, however.
“Is Pogba the world’s most overrated player?” former England striker-turned-broadcaster Gary Lineker tweeted after the midfielder looked ordinary in a 2-1 win over Ireland in the second round.
“I’m not worried,” was the answer of France goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris. “Great players often wait for important moments to show their class.”
Pogba did just that against Iceland, using his rare blend of athleticism and skills to the full and crowning a fine display with a superb headed goal.
Griezmann was already the fans’ favourite. The image of midfielder Dimitri Payet kneeling down to kiss his left boot after his goals has been compared with the head-kissing ritual between defender Laurent Blanc and keeper Fabien Barthez during France’s successful 1998 World Cup campaign.
The 25-year-old Griezmann reached new heights this season as his goalscoring steered Atletico Madrid to the Champions League final. Atletico coach Diego Simeone described the disciplined, hard-working striker as one of the world’s top three players.
Griezmann often walks around sipping yerba mate — an infused drink popular in parts of South America — and always wears long sleeves, following the habit of his childhood hero David Beckham.
He also knows how to beat Germany’s influential goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, having done so in Atletico’s 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals, when he finished a great run with a clever finish inside the box.
The Germany players will also have to keep a close eye on Pogba. Highly successful at club level with Juventus, having helped them to four Serie A titles, the 23-year-old has often frustrated fans with below-par performances on the international stage.
Some believe Pogba has shown only glimpses of his obvious talent. French fans hope that now is the time for him to shake off his tag as a gifted but erratic player.