Spectre of 2002 hangs over injury-hit France at World Cup


France are the World Cup holders, but a troubled build-up to their defence of the trophy means Les Bleus will go into Tuesday’s opening game in Qatar against Australia with the spectre of 2002 hanging over them.

Injuries to key players had dogged coach Didier Deschamps even before the dramatic news broke in the early hours of Sunday in Doha that Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema is out of the tournament with an injured left thigh.

The French Football Federation (FFF) confirmed that Benzema will be sidelined for three weeks, meaning there was little prospect of the Real Madrid star being fully fit again even for the final on December 18.

But without him, what are the chances of France getting that far again, four years after they beat Croatia 4-2 in Moscow?

France won the 2018 World Cup without Benzema, but in Russia they had a midfield of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, both of whom are missing due to injury this time.

A squad with fearsome depth has been stretched with the further losses of AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan, Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe and RB Leipzig forward Christopher Nkunku, the best player in the Bundesliga last season.

Centre-back Raphael Varane, another pillar of the 2018 team, has also been battling to regain full fitness as France prepare to also face Tunisia and Denmark in Group D.

“It’s not nice,” Deschamps told broadcaster TF1 on Sunday.

“But we have an objective and we have a quality squad with players who know what awaits them. I have confidence in them.”

France still boast world-class players throughout, not least Kylian Mbappe up front.

“We’re not too worried and everyone is ready to play their part. We know whoever is on the pitch it will be a good team,” insisted defender Axel Disasi on Saturday.

However, it is not just the injuries.

France arrived in Qatar having won just once in six matches.

The feeling that all is not well has been accentuated in recent months by off-field issues, including a disagreement between Mbappe and the FFF over image rights and the revelation that the French government was to launch an audit of the federation.

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Meanwhile Deschamps has ditched the three-man central defence he had come to favour in order to return to the back four that served him so well in 2018.

That was in part due to the experience of Euro 2020, when a French team with a back three and midfielder Adrien Rabiot forced to play left wing-back lost on penalties to Switzerland in the last 16.

“We have done really good things playing with a back three but we have also found ourselves in difficulty and often been imbalanced,” Deschamps said recently.

“And I know all too well that to go far in a major tournament you need to be solid defensively.”

Having your best attack-minded players available also helps.

– The curse of the holders? –

France’s preparations bring to mind 2002, when they went to the last World Cup to be held in Asia as the holders.

Their star player then was Zinedine Zidane. Fresh from scoring the winner for Real Madrid in the Champions League final, he suffered a thigh injury and missed the team’s first two matches in South Korea.

Robert Pires was out too, and by the time Zidane returned for the final group game against Denmark it was too late. France were eliminated without scoring a goal.

Recent history also shows how vulnerable the World Cup holders can be.

Italy beat France in the 2006 final but went out in the group stage four years later, with the same fate befalling holders Spain in 2014 and Germany four years ago.

All three of them kept the same coach who had led them to victory in the previous tournament.

In charge for a decade now, France too have kept faith with Deschamps, and he has insisted there will be no complacency.

“We have a status and that’s great, but that offers no guarantees. My philosophy is always positive though, and we have lots of energy and determination,” he said before arriving in Qatar.

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