Coach Didier Deschamps has challenged his players to write themselves into the history of French football on Thursday by beating Germany in their European Championship semifinal.
France has not won a trophy since Euro 2000 and is bidding to reach the final of a major competition for the first time in a decade.
“We have a new page to write. The players can write it,” Deschamps said Wednesday at a pre-match news conference. “It’s blank now. We have to fill it tomorrow.”
Germany has reached at least the semifinals in the past five tournaments, losing the Euro 2008 final and winning the 2014 World Cup.
“We can’t match Germany in terms of their experience, the number of caps, the number of semifinals and finals they’ve been in,” Deschamps said. “But we’re going to give it our best shot. I don’t want us to just think about defending. We have the ability to create danger.”
France had been waiting a long time for such an opportunity. After losing the 2006 World Cup final to Italy on penalties, which brought the curtain down on Zinedine Zidane’s glory era, Les Bleus went into freefall, failing to win a game at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
Quarterfinal appearances at Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup – where it lost 1-0 to Germany – somewhat restored France’s reputation.
But victory against Germany would definitively close the chapter on an often traumatic era for French football, which included qn infamous training-ground strike at the World Cup six years ago.
To reach that tournament, France had needed a blatant handball by Thierry Henry in a controversial playoff win against Ireland. There was also a five-match ban for then-captain Patrice Evra after the 2010 World Cup and a lack of discipline followed at Euro 2012.
The build-up to Euro 2016 was full of debate as to whether striker Karim Benzema should play.
With Benzema facing preliminary charges of conspiracy to blackmail France teammate Mathieu Valbuena, Deschamps left out arguably his most talented player in the interests of team harmony.
“Not everything’s been smooth, but the players have done what they needed to,” said Deschamps, the team captain when France won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. “I believe in them.”
So far, his key choices have largely paid off at Euro 2016.
He has stuck with striker Olivier Giroud against the majority of public opinion, and has been repaid with three goals.
He took a risk on inexperienced Leicester midfielder N’Golo Kante, who is now one of the most consistent players in the side.
But his best move was giving attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet another chance, bringing him back into the side in late March.
On Thursday, Deschamps is counting on a show of unity at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome to help his side.
“I’m convinced the fans will be right behind us,” Deschamps said. “They’ll have their part to play, and we’ll need them.”