When we last saw France on the grand stage, they were in the 2006 World Cup final -- their second championship match appearance in the past three tournaments -- battling Italy to a 1-1 draw before Azzurri bested Les Bleus in penalty kicks. Certainly the image most associated with that match -- and maybe the entire World Cup -- is Zinedine Zidane's head-butt. Which is a shame, really, considering France defeated Spain, Brazil and then Portugal in the knockout rounds, beating the world's best by a combined score of 5-1 to qualify for the tournament final.
France's impressive run in 2006 was just the latest example of their recent place as one of the world's soccer powers. While Les Bleus qualified for the first ever Would Cup in 1930, the next six decades were an up-and-down ride, with varying levels of success. And then 1998 happened.
As hosts of World Cup 1998, France stormed their way to the country's first ever championship on that level, and thus cemented their place as one of football's bests. What followed was continued, and unprecedented, success: 2000 Euro Cup champions; winners of the Confederations Cup in both 2001 and 2003; a quarterfinals appearance in the 2004 Euro Cup; and of course, a second-place finish in Germany for the 2006 World Cup.
Now in 2010, France finds themselves at an important point in their national team's history. Gone is Zidane. Thierry Henry is 32-years old. And in light of recent play -- needing a playoff with Ireland just to qualify for this year's World Cup -- doubters and skeptics are circling, ready to unload their ammunition and label France pretenders, squawking that their time among soccer's elite is over.
How will France respond? If Les Bleus are to continue their success into another decade, and pass the torch to a new generation, the transition may very well have to begin in South Africa.
How They Got Here
France's play in Group 7 of UEFA's qualification began is less than stellar fashion: a loss to Austria and a draw with Romania in two of their first three matches. Les Bleus recovered in time to earn 21 points (six wins, three draws in 10 matches), but that was only good enough for second place in the group, behind Serbia. As the Group 7 runner-up, France was awarded one final way to earn a spot in World Cup 2010: a playoff with Ireland.
France won the first leg, played in Dublin, 1-0, and then drew even with The Boys in Green at home, 1-1, perhaps aided by a fortuitous non-call on a handball made by Thierry Henry in extra time. Nonetheless, it was France advancing to South Africa on aggregate.
How They've Fared Before
France qualified for the inaugural World Cup, but failed to get out of the group stage in 1930, and finished seventh (out of 13 teams). Les Bleus qualified for just eight of the next 14 tournaments, earning third place pace finishes in both 1958 and 1986. France's next appearance did not come until 1998, when they hosted the World Cup, and they were sure to make the most of it: France won it all in 1998, defeating Brazil in the final, 3-0.
France failed to make it past group play in 2002 before returning to the championship in 2006, where they were bested by Italy.
Players To Watch
With Zinedine Zidane's chapter head-butted to a close in the 2006 final, the team is now Thierry Henry's, a 32-year old striker that wears the captain's armband for France and earns a paycheck from Barcelona in La Liga. A member of the national team since 1997, this will be Henry's fourth World Cup, and likely his last. While his skill allows him continued success in one-on-ones -- he is France's all-time leading goal scorer -- signs point to Henry filling a super-sub role for France in 2010 World Cup, a recent development that he seems to have accepted: "We're not here to know who will play and who won't play. No one is above the team, we're all in this to go as far as we can together."
Both times Henry has come on as a sub in the past two matches, it was to replace Nicolas Anelka, a 31-year old striker who has been rejuvenated recently, giving France even more options in attack. Out on the wing will be Franck Ribéry, who will be making his second appearance in a World Cup. He is often described as having good "pace" and "energy." Translation: if you do not support France, you will quickly dislike Ribéry.
In the back, order is controlled by William Gallas, a center-back veteran -- and the goal scorer on Henry's handball. Jeremy Toulalan and Yoann Gourcuff will be vital in the midfield, especially since France will be without Lassana Diarra, who had to withdraw from training last week after he was diagnosed with "asthenic syndrome secondary to a sickle-cell anemia."
How Far They Can Get
Despite their recent inconsistencies -- including a draw with Tunisia -- France are still the favorites in Group A, mostly because of the three other teams included: Mexico, Uruguay and host South Africa. Although, they are wise not to overlook Mexico, who finished second CONCACAF behind USA, or even Bafana Bafana -- the host team has advanced to at least the second round in every FIFA World Cup.
Lying in wait in the Round of 16 would likely be Nigeria or Greece (as runners-up of Group B). While another three points to Les Bleus there appears favorable, it would seem France's run would come to an end in the quarterfinals, presumably at the hands of England.
|June 11||Uruguay||Cape Town|
|June 22||South Africa||Bloemfontein|
|Lloris, Hugo||23||10||0||Lyon (France)|
|Mandanda, Steve||25||13||0||Marseille (France)|
|Carrasso, Cedric||28||0||0||Bordeaux (France)|
|Sagna, Bacary||27||19||0||Arsenal (England)|
|Abidal, Eric||30||54||0||Barcelona (Spain)|
|Reveillere, Anthony||30||5||0||Lyon (France)|
|Gallas, William||32||80||5||Arsenal (England)|
|Planus, Mark||28||1||0||Bordeaux (France)|
|Evra, Patrice||29||29||0||Manchester United (England)|
|Squillaci, Sebastien||29||20||0||Sevilla (Spain)|
|Clichy, Gael||24||4||0||Arsenal (England)|
|Ribery, Franck||27||44||7||Bayern Munich (Germany)|
|Gourcuff, Yoann||23||19||1||Bordeaux (France)|
|Toulalan, Jeremy||26||33||0||Lyon (France)|
|Malouda, Florent||29||53||3||Chelsea (England)|
|Diarra, Alou||28||25||0||Bordeaux (France)|
|Diaby, Abou||24||4||0||Arsenal (England)|
|Valbuena, Mathieu||25||1||1||Marseille (France)|
|Cisse, Djibril||28||39||9||Panathinaikos (Greece)|
|Govou, Sidney||30||45||10||Lyon (France)|
|Gignac, Andre-Pierre||24||12||4||Toulouse (France)|
|Henry, Thierry||32||120||51||Barcelona (Spain)|
|Anelka, Nicolas||31||66||14||Chelsea (England)|
France World Cup Team Card
SB Nation Soccer will be distributing team cards for each of the World Cup's 32 entrants. Here is France's:
For more World Cup coverage, visit the Dirty Tackle blog from our partners at Yahoo!