In its long history, the French national team has only ever achieved great things in the way of one outstanding leader. In 1958, les Bleus had Raymond Kopa and finished third at the World Cup. Michel Platini guided his team to triumph at Euro 1984 and two World Cup semifinals in 1982 and 1986. Just over 20 years later, it was Zinedine Zidane’s turn to lead France to success with the 1998 World Cup, the 2000 Euros and then take the team to the 2006 World Cup final as well.
Of course, all of them were supported by great players like Roger Piantoni and Just Fontaine in 1958, Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana in the ’80s, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly in 1998 and 2000 as well as Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry in 2006. But the three greatest players in French football story had the biggest roles in their generation’s success stories.
In 2016, France had its star as well in Antoine Griezmann, who carried the team towards the final with his goals (six in the competition) and technical leadership. The Atletico Madrid striker is not Kopa, Platini or Zidane, but he made Euro 2016 his own. France were his team. At half-time of the Ireland game in the round of 16, Deschamps changed the team’s tactical formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 to suit him and his profile.
This generation became his generation, despite the disappointment of losing the tournament in the final against Portugal and Griezmann having a bad final. Nevertheless, it was written that he would be the heir to Kopa, Platini and Zidane and could carry France like the others had before, like Lionel Messi carries Argentina, Gareth Bale carries Wales, Cristiano Ronaldo carries Portugal or Neymar carries Brazil.
Yet it’s not turned out as planned, at least not yet. Griezmann had a bit of a Euro 2016 hangover, struggling to have the same impact on the national team since last summer. The 2018 World Cup qualifiers were difficult for him with only four goals (against Belarus, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Bulgaria) and some poor performances. It almost felt like the Griezmann pre-2006 when he was only playing an indifferent role for les Bleus.
Things got to the point that some parts of the French media asked the question: Should Griezmann be benched? He will start on Friday evening at the Stade de France in a friendly against Wales and probably again in Germany next week even if he is not at his best at the moment.
Perhaps Griezmann struggles to cope with all the expectations and the pressure of being the leader. It’s been a similar issue at Atletico this season as well, as his stats have been disappointing and he is not the decisive factor and winning them matches anymore. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t want to be the leader of this France team and would rather be part of a very strong group of players.
The same happened with Paul Pogba. The Manchester United midfielder is a bit younger than Griezmann (24 compared to 26) and plays in a position where it’s maybe a bit more difficult to carry the team. He could have become the boss instead but isn’t quite ready yet either. While Raphael Varane, N’Golo Kante, Thomas Lemar or Ousmane Dembele don’t have, at the moment and for various reasons, the capacity of becoming the boss either.
So this French generation, who came so close in 2016 and is among the big favourites to win the World Cup in 2018, could succeed for once without one guide and his lieutenants. This team is definitely more like the Germany squad that won the last World Cup thanks to its collective strength, although Thomas Muller was also unstoppable in that tournament.
At the 2016 Euro, individuals prevailed and bailed France out throughout the tournament, except against Iceland: Dimitri Payet was decisive against Germany while Griezmann dazzled against Albania, Ireland and Germany. In 2018, Deschamps has to find a way for this team to express itself collectively through an identity and a style of play, meaning the squad could carry France together instead of just one or two individuals.
Unless, of course, someone comes in and makes this team his own for sure and becomes the real heir to Kopa, Platini and Zidane. There is only one candidate at the moment and his name is Kylian Mbappe.
More than Griezmann, Pogba, Varane, Dembele or Lemar, Mbappe is the one who could walk in the steps of his glorious predecessors. He has everything for that: the feet, the brains, the class, the mental strength and the supreme talent. He turns only 19 in December and at that age, Kopa, Platini or Zidane were nowhere near the France national team. Yet Mbappe is already there, ready to take the world by storm in the summer. Let’s see if he can carry France like the others did in the past.