A tortuous build-up dominated by off-field controversy and untimely injuries comes to an end for hosts France when they finally get Euro 2016 underway against Romania in Group A at the Stade de France on Friday.
Les Bleus’ preparations on the field have been distracted by claims from Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema that his exclusion from the squad was racially motivated.
Benzema hasn’t played for Les Bleus since October last year after becoming embroiled in a sex-tape blackmail scandal that targeted then international teammate Mathieu Valbuena.
France’s highest active goalscorer, Benzema — who is of Algerian descent — claimed coach Didier Deschamps had “bowed to pressure from a racist part of France.”
In addition, Benzema’s Madrid team-mate Raphael Varane will miss the tournament due to a hamstring injury.
Coach Didier Deschamps’ defensive options are severely depleted as Barcelona’s Jeremy Mathieu also had to withdraw from the squad, while Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho wasn’t included as he was serving a provisional ban from UEFA for doping.
Lassana Diarra, Kurt Zouma and Mathieu Debuchy are also sidelined, and Deschamps has acknowledged he never imagined being hit with such headaches even just a few weeks ago.
“Everything that has happened to us since the squad was announced on May 12, honestly, even in my worst nightmares I don’t think I could have imagined it,” Deschamps told sports daily L’Equipe on Wednesday.
Yet, expectations are still high that a team boasting the precocious young talents of the likes of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann can repeat the feats of the French sides of 1998 and 1984 in winning the World Cup and Euros respectively on home soil.
“We have the chance to play at home, there will be pressure, but it will be positive,” said goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.
“We have the obligation to have a good tournament and the objective is to win it.”
Deschamps’ men have been in fine form, winning nine of their last 10 matches over the past year with their only defeat coming to England when minds were focused elsewhere just days after the November Paris terror attacks.
Three goals in the final two warm-up friendlies for Olivier Giroud have come as a welcome relief for the Arsenal striker after criticism of his ability to replace Benzema up front.
However, there is no doubting the talent surrounding Giroud with two of the Premier League’s top performers this season in Manchester United’s Martial and Dimitri Payet of West Ham United competing for a place in a front three also containing Griezmann, fresh from a 32-goal season with Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid.
“There will be a different pressure, but we are ready. We are looking forward to it,” added Manchester City defender Bacary Sagna.
“The young players these days play without thinking, they don’t have any fear and play like they do with their clubs.”
While France’s forward line will be blessed with pace and youth, there will be plenty of experience at the back with all of the expected back four of Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Adil Rami and Patrick Evra in their thirties.
Romania’s hopes of springing a huge surprise will be based around a solid defence as they reached a first major tournament in eight years with the best defensive record in qualifying.
Anghel Iordanescu’s men conceded just twice in 10 matches in qualifying behind Northern Ireland in Group F and also held European champions Spain to a 0-0 draw in March.
However, without the star quality of a Gheorge Hagi or Adrian Mutu as in years gone by, Romania also struggled mightily for goals in qualifying, scoring just 11 times.
They would be delighted to frustrate the hosts before later games against Albania and Switzerland.
“The pressure on France is greater. If we manage to get a draw it would be extraordinary, and if we win it would be fantastic,” said Romania assistant coach Viorel Moldovan, who used to play in France for Nantes.