A few years after he retired, France defender Lilian Thuram was asked by a television anchor to reconstruct his brace, what the then President Jacques Chirac described as the two most beautiful goals in the history of French football, in the heated semifinal against Croatia in the 1998 World Cup. Thuram, his dead-pan features exaggerated by the specs, took out his mobile and dialled a number. “I’ll connect you to Zidane, he’ll describe the goals, for he was the closest man when I scored both those goals. I remember nothing, it was a moment everything pulled together into one intense moment that is beautiful,” he said.
Those were the only goals — netted in the space of 23 minutes — that Thuram scored in 142 games for France. But he doesn’t remember either — the first a clinical right-footed slide into the far left corner a minute after Croatia had taken the lead, and the second a thunderous left-footed drive from the edge of the box. “I was in a trance when I scored the goals and when I watch it again, I get into a similar trance,” he reflected.
Exactly 20 years later, Samuel Umtiti could churn out Thuram verbatim if asked to relive his decisive header against Belgium. Umtiti didn’t bomb forward like Thuram that night — the latter keen to atone for the uncharacteristic error that resulted in the first goal — but the header was textbook stuff, the towering Frenchman out-jumping Marouane Fellaini and burying the ball into the far-left corner. Everything, from the timing of his leap to the precision and power behind the header, was flawless, what the goalless Olivier Giroud was supposed to deliver.
The larger irony of his decider too couldn’t be missed — in a game brimming with outrageously talented forwards and midfielders, the most enduring touch came from a defender, with French president Emmanuel Macron in attendance. In a sense, it was poetic justice, befitting the work rate the French back-line collectively put in to strangle two of the most vibrant footballing brains in the world.
Standing firm at the rear
It was a treatise on rearguard efficiency, without ever looking laboured or brittle. In the early passage of play, both Kevin de Bryune and Eden Hazard cut swathes through the midfield, putting anxiety on the French-flag smeared faces. But Umtiti and Rafael Varane — their coordination so reminiscent of another Madrid-Barcelona pair, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, without the former’s histrionics and the latter’s daring – were hardly flustered.
In essence, there isn’t a more compatible defensive pair in this World Cup. Umtiti is all physical gallantry — barging, niggling, shirt-slugging brute of a defender you don’t miss, quite like Thuram. But for all his physical prowess and tigerishness, he rarely plunges into a hasty tackle, or hideous hacks, rather there’s a millisecond accuracy about his tackles, and his blocks are not wanton swishing of his limbs, but methodical positioning. He, like the best of defenders (and strikers), is always there at the right place at the right time. Romelu Lukaku would testify.
Around the 30-minute mark, De Bruyne nearly found Lukaku at the far post with a low cross, only for Umtiti’s intervention. When De Bruyne was cutting in, Umtiti was on the edge of box, tying up Hazard, but in half a second, he was well inside the box, nipping what could have been the easiest of tap-ins for Lukaku. Back in Barca, they also see Puyol’s leadership and motivational skills in him, characteristics that Varane is feeding on.
“He does nothing silly, is always composed, uses his brain as much as his skill,” Iniesta praised him, and even likened him to former teammate Carles Puyol.
An asset of immense value
Little wonder then that Barcelona inserted a staggering 500-million pound exit clause in his contract. In practice sessions, no one tests Lionel Messi as much as him. “When we practise, I always put him in the opposite team because he challenges me, he makes me think a lot. You see such a combative defender, and suddenly you’re tempted to react differently to a situation,” the Argentine superstar said glowingly about him. Or to put it in another way, he creates a sense of infallibility.
Varane, skinnier and taller than Umtiti who impolitely kept Zidane waiting for his procurement as he was sitting an exam, is not as omniscient as him. You would hardly notices him until he bursts forth from nowhere, stealthily and invisibly, then just glides into a tackle or bisects a through ball with the slightest of fuss. He is an intelligent, positional defender with a Andrea Barzagli-like serenity about him and a knack of scoring thunderous headers, accentuated by an explosive leap, like he scored against Uruguay. Former Spanish manager Fernando Hierro even rates him as the best defender around: “He might be only 25 but plays as if he had been around for 20 years. He has the physical and technical gifts to be one of the best ever in the game’s history.”
Hierro, the defensive backbone of Real’s first horde of galacticos, marks out his intelligence. “When a defender can think like a forward, it’s a dangerous thing. He is one such rare breed,” he opined. It was on evidence against both Belgium and Uruguay, against the latter he was only noticed after scoring the first goal, a beastly header, in the tradition of high-class defenders who like to operate in the anonymity of their role.
Like most enduring partnerships, it took Umtiti and Varane time to bed in, to study each other and establish chemistry, and as against Argentina they’re occasionally prone to lapses, or “goofiness” as coach Didier Deschamps describes. But the latter now sees a parallel between his wards and the centre-back pairing of Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf (Thuram was mostly deployed as right-back in the 1998 tournament).
To stretch the comparison further, there’s a similar magic square at the back, between the centre-backs and the defensive midfielders N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi, blending cohesively into making France a sturdy defensive unit, the nucleus of Deschamps teams. He sees quite a few parallels between the 1998 and current French side, not least the goal-drought of Olivier Giroud (then Stéphane Guivarc’h). But Deschamps, responding to a question on Giroud by a journalist after the Belgium game, said: “Goals are coming, even from the centre-backs.” Thuram would have a nice laugh over it, and would say it was a moment everything pulled together into one intense moment that is beautiful.