“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” was famously the rallying cry of the French Revolution but it was the “unité” on display in the 5-2 rout of Switzerland on Friday that could be the most significent factor in how far France advance at the World Cup. Coach Didier Deschamps admitted he had not selected the best 23 players when he finalised his squad for the tournament and the omission of creative midfielder Samir Nasri was explicitly for reasons of squad cohesion.
While it was an understandable decision given the scandal of the South Africa campaign in 2010, it was still controversial and World Cup winner Patrick Vieira was among those who suggested he might live to regret it. Four years after the strike on the team bus that presaged their departure from South Africa winless and a national disgrace, they took apart a Swiss team who had lost only once in the last two years to all but book a place in the last 16.
Vieira was unstinting in his praise for the team ethic that Deschamps — his captain when France won the World Cup in 1998 — had instilled in the squad. “Didier Deschamps did a fantastic job bringing the players together, their collective will was unbelievable,” he told ITV. “What I really liked today was how they could find team mates who were in a better position to score.”
And score they did, twice through Olivier Giroud and Blaise Matuidi in little over 60 seconds inside the first 20 minutes in Salvador to put the Swiss on the canvas and again through Mathieu Valbuena after a sweeping counter-attack just before halftime.
Forward Karim Benzema, who had a penalty saved in the first half, finally got reward for his inspirational efforts with the fourth in the 67th minute to bring his tally for the tournament to three goals, before Moussa Sissoko grabbed the fifth. “Things are going excellently for us,” striker Giroud told German TV. “We’ve got a great team spirit. We gave up two strange goals. But the important thing was the win over Switzerland.”
Combined with the 3-0 victory over Honduras, the result means France are almost assured a place in the knockout rounds before their final Group E match against Ecuador. More important, perhaps, was the sight of French footballers playing for their country with such focus and pleasure. “It is the same thing that we saw in 1998,” said Deschamps. “Of course we can’t compare each changing room. I have a very focused group at present, they have a mindset that they want to maintain, even those who play less, there is a force that is rising.”
It was that very lack of rancour from the squad players that Deschamps had identified as the key factor in leaving Nasri at home. If Deschamps lifting the World Cup on home soil marked the high point of France’s relationship with their national team, South Africa was the nadir.
It was by no means the end of the problems, though — the Euro 2012 campaign was nothing to write home about and it is easy to forget after the rampant display in Salvador that France so nearly missed out on qualification for Brazil. “Respect”, a word that had not been associated with the France team for several years, was the L’Equipe headline after they overturned a two goal first-leg deficit to beat Ukraine in a playoff and book their spot in the tournament.
The editors at the renowned French sports newspaper are likely to be looking at something closer to “Impressif”, or “Magnifique”, for Saturday’s edition.