By Jay Mwamba
It’s been 40 years since a team mounted a successful defense of the World Cup. This alone underscores the challenge France face in retaining the championship they won in Paris four years ago.
But it’s a challenge many believe the French can overcome, and for good reasons.
You probably have to go back to the great Brazilian sides of the 1960s to find a squad as deep and as talented as this cosmopolitan collection of skill. From the sometimes eccentric Fabien Barthez between the posts and defense kingpin Marcel Desailly, to their balding midfield general, Zinedine Zidane, and goal-poachers Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, “Les Bleus” ooze class in all departments.
Coach Roger Lemerre, who inherited the World Cup-winning side from AimT Jacquet in the fall of 1998, has in the four years since forged an even more formidable team whose most notable improvement has been the addition of a cutting edge upfront.
Defying the general trend, by all World championship teams since Brazil’s successful defense in 1962, to slip, Lemerre’s men lifted their game to another level after France ’98.
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They found new talent along the way in the likes of overlapping fullback Mick’l Silvestre, the elegant Willy Sagnol and nimble forward Sylvain Wiltord, while adding the 2000 European Championship and the 2001 Confederations Cup to their trophy room.
Deservedly ranked No. 1 in the world by FIFA, France look unbeatable going into the 2002 finals.
What makes them such a tempting pick to repeat as champions is their all-round balance and strength in depth. They are almost the perfect team and possess in abundance all the attributes that experts believe potential champions should have.
Start with quality. In midfield m’stro Zidane with his bag of tricks, they have the man widely regarded as the world’s best player. France’s other world-class performers include skipper Desailly, the indefatigable Lilian Thuram, linkman Patrick Vieira and the young twin forwards, Henry and Trezeguet.
There’s also the experience factor. The core of the battle-tested French squad has been together for several successful years and has turned winning into a habit.
They overcame adversity in both World Cup ’98 and Euro 2000 to triumph, and Japan/Korea 2002 is unlikely to pose any mental or physical challenges that they can’t handle.
Even luck, another factor, albeit to varying degrees, in the World Cup, seems to have smiled on the Gallic cause for this campaign in the form of a reasonable first-round draw.
Starting with the opener against their former West African colony of Senegal, France should be able to use their Group A schedule (Denmark and Uruguay are the other members) as a dry run for the knockout stage of the tournament.
And perhaps their biggest attribute — vitally critical to success in events like the World Cup that feature a knockout competition — is their consistency.
This is a big edge that France should hold over the other favorites. Only Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentina, who breezed through the South American qualifiers with ease, come close to matching France’s form over the last four years, during which “Les Bleus” have lost only twice.
France’s emergence as masters of world football — their youth national team won the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Trinidad last year — is not entirely surprising.
An elegant side that played with a flair unmatched outside the Latin world in the ’80s, they were European and Olympic champions in ’84 when they boasted such inspirational figures as Michel Platini, the Malian-born Jean Tigana, Luis Fernandez and Alain Giresse.
The Platini generation laid the foundation for what was to follow in the mid and late ’90s, when French flair bloomed and some steel was added to the squad.
Casting their net wide to assemble a squad more motley in composition than any outside Team USA, France turned to the diverse skills of players with roots from far and wide to build a world-beating side.
For instance, the defense, a key to the World Cup ’98 triumph, was built around the solid Desailly, who was adopted from Ghana by a French diplomat, and the adventurous Thuram a native of Guadeloupe in the West Indies.
The wonderfully creative Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrant, was given free reign in midfield where he has since been joined by the ferocious tackling and tireless Senegalese-born Vieira. And in attack, the speedy Henry, another player of Caribbean descent, and the sharp-shooting Franco-Argentine Trezeguet, feature prominently.
The net result has been a team of talented individuals that plays with the cohesiveness of a well-oiled machine.
This will be France’s 11th trip to the finals and although absent in ’90 and ’94, they’ve finished among the top four on their previous four outings.
Platini and Co. took fourth place in Spain ’82, after a pulsating 5-4 penalty loss to West Germany in the semifinals in what ranks among the best games ever in World Cup history. The French led 3-1 in extra time after a 1-1 tie in regulation, but Germany stormed back to level it at 3 and force penalties.
They went one better in Mexico ’86, taking third place after another semifinal loss to the Germans, but returned triumphantly in 1998 under the spell of Zidane to rout Brazil 3-0 on home soil and finally snare the World Cup.
(Each week Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist. The teams profiled to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay and Senegal.)