THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

The country has fallen in love with their exciting national team

10 June ~ They say France has ground to a standstill, but there was little sign of that as commuters poured out of Gare Lille Flandres into the June sunshine this morning. Strikes continue to take place across the country as part of the CGT union’s widespread protests against the controversial loi travail, which would change working conditions in the country – but you would never have guessed it from the number of people wandering down Rue du Molinel into offices in the usual manner or enjoying their morning cafés on the pavement terraces.

France is used to strikes so little wonder that for many people life goes on unaffected. It is also used to hosting major football tournaments: the country staged the European Championship in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998. Three tournaments in little more than three decades – it’s not a bad record.

The fact that France won on those last two occasions has heightened expectations ahead of tonight’s opening game against Romania at the Stade de France. After a dismal 2014-15 the national team’s form has improved markedly in 2015-16 – Didier Deschamps’ side goes into the tournament having won nine and lost just one of their previous ten games, and that single defeat barely registered, coming as it did just days after the terrorist attacks in Paris last November.

Repeat History was the headline on the front of today’s edition of sports daily L’Equipe. The main photo was of France and Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba. Next to him were smaller photos of former France and Juventus midfielders Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane (on holiday in India at the moment, apparently) as a reminder of the talisman that inspired Les Bleus’ victories 1984 and 1998.

“Given the demonstrations of love that have accompanied France’s recent performances, there is every reason to believe that the France national team will be an excellent antidote to our country’s current torments, be they social disputes or security pressures,” wrote journalist Jerome Cazadieu in the front-page editorial.

Naturally there are security fears, plus worries that the strikes will present France in a bad light and disrupt foreign fans’ travel plans – but the love for the national team that Cazadieu mentions is just as real. France’s good run of form has helped, but the fact that the team plays exciting football is an even bigger factor.

This is out of necessity rather than by design – it just so happens that France’s better players are attackers right now, and the absence of three important defensive figures (centre-backs Raphaël Varane and Mamadou Sakho plus holding midfielder Lassana Diarra) means Deschamps will have to rely on his front men even more than he would have liked.

There are great options for the three front places in France’s 4-3-3 formation: Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann have enjoyed the finest seasons of their careers, Olivier Giroud has scored four times in his last three starts, Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman is Europe’s most exciting teenager and Manchester United’s Anthony Martial is a pretty good option to bring off the bench. Back-up centre-forward André-Pierre Gignac has scored 32 goals in 48 games since moving to Mexico’s Tigres last year.

France kicked-off their successful World Cup campaign 18 years ago with a 3-0 win over South Africa. A similar result tonight would add to the view that Deschamps’ France are good enough to make it three home triumphs in a row. James Eastham

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