THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Country finally behind national team again

icon worldcup generic110 June ~ The most significant moments in France's 8-0 win over Jamaica in their final pre-World Cup friendly on Sunday night happened after the match. In front of a record crowd of 49,626 – the biggest-ever gathering at Lille's Stade Pierre Mauroy – France's substitutes poured on to the pitch and celebrated with their team-mates, exchanging hugs and high fives. The large crowd had stayed almost in its entirety until the final whistle, even though the result was a foregone conclusion, to celebrate and applaud the team.

A few hours later pictures emerged on social media of the players looking genuinely content in each other's company, posing and smiling in the dressing room and on the team bus.

It is four years since the players' strike that marred France's South Africa World Cup campaign amid rumours of division and tension. As a result of the debacle the public fell out of love with their national team. For a while, the rupture seemed permanent. But as the team jetted out to Brazil on Monday morning the mood across the country had been transformed, and the signs were already there before the Jamaica game.

Twenty-four hours earlier, hundreds of fans had gathered outside France's five-star L'Hermitage Gantois city centre hotel, waiting for a glimpse of les Bleus as they returned from their final pre-game training session. As the players climbed off the bus into the evening sunshine they were greeted by wild cheers and screams of support. Several among them – including erstwhile captain Patrice Evra, supposedly a pariah for leading the strike in South Africa – were mobbed.

On the pitch things have gone well, too. Until the last couple of months France were seen as just another team at the finals; now they're being tipped as dark horses to win the tournament. As Lille-based paper La Voix du Nord said in its Monday morning match report: "The gameplan is clear [4-3-3], the fervour around the team has simply not stopped growing, the attitude among the players is good, and the results of their final warm-up friendlies [two wins, one draw, 13 goals scored and just one conceded] are close to perfection. All of this guarantees nothing, of course, but compared to four years ago the atmosphere could not be more different."

The fact that France won playing with such energy and decisiveness against Jamaica just days after the loss to injury of Franck Ribéry, widely considered their most important player, speaks volumes about the quiet confidence running through the squad, not to mention the options coach Didier Deschamps appears to have in attack. Deschamps now finds himself in the unusual position of having to manage expectations as France prepare for their opening game against Honduras on Sunday night. That is a sign of just how much things have changed. James Eastham

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