Unlike many on this blog, I did not grow up with a passion for football. I’m a Bostonian, thus arrived in the hospital delivery room hard-wired to root for the Red Sox and die for the Bruins. It was not until my first, fortuitously timed trip abroad to France in 1998 that I learned that football was a global phenomenon, not just something kids played after school.
I had the good fortune be in France again this spring. For someone who has gone on to work on the history of French football, this was a phenomenal opportunity to observe, discuss, and listen. One thing that was immediately clear: France is eager for Les Bleus to reverse the humiliation of 2010. It’s a sentiment held from the French Football Federation (FFF) down through the press and the public, a rare show of solidarity. I heard a general sense of hopefulness, but it was mixed with pessimism as to how deep into the tournament Les Bleus can advance, anxiety that the media are possibly over-selling French chances, and perhaps fears of another spectacular failure.
France’s first match, a 3-0 drubbing of Honduras, has not changed the main Les Bleus storylines I’m following this month. If anything, it reinforced them:
1. The “new” generation. The core of Les Bleus retains very few of those allegedly accused of leading the bloodbath in South Africa. These are players—such as Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, and Mamadou Sakho—who do not get much international exposure, at least not yet.
2. Les Bleus on Twitter. This is just absolutely fascinating for a social scientist, to see how the players act, interact, and portray themselves. If you are not already following Pogba on Twitter, then do so (@paulpogba). He has a fantastic animation thing going on.
3. Karim Benzema: true leader or on-field magician? His two goals against Honduras won him the cover of L’Équipe. After a long drought of goals with Les Bleus, it appears that this is Benzema’s year. But will he play well enough to finally realize the prophecy made long ago of filling Zidane’s shoes?
4. Whether Les Bleus can maintain the momentum won during the last World Cup qualifying playoff match against Ukraine in November and sustained through friendly matches this spring. The cult of winning is often overlooked, and prior to November, it was a long time since Les Bleus had a (positively) memorable game. This track record seems to have changed, but for how far into the tournament can it last? It comes down to confidence and camaraderie. Didier Deschamps has constructed a team that—seemingly—gets along well on-and-off the field. The November game reinforced team solidarity, with each other as well as with the public. Sunday’s win in Porto Alegre cemented team confidence, but will it survive a loss to Switzerland?
5. The FFF’s attempts to reconstruct the frayed marriage between Les Bleus and the French. The organization has been pulling out all the stops, in traditional media, social media, and everything between. In early June, FFF headquarters in Paris were decked out as the “Maison des Bleus,” and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) reinforced their ad campaigns celebrating their Ligue 1 championship with references to a wining France. There’s a sense that the French want Les Bleus to do well, but the devolution of the team’s image in recent years may have made it difficult for the public to fully embrace the team… unless they produce some magic in Brazil.
One thing I’m not devoting much thought to: How the absence of Frank Ribéry, arguably one of France’s best players today, will mark the team. Many in the Anglophone world have been fixated on this question, but in France Ribéry is yesterday’s news. It surprised absolutely nobody there when the FFF announced Ribéry would not join Les Bleus in Brazil. The performance against Honduras reaffirms what the team’s three pre-World Cup tune-up games this spring confirmed: the core of the team has shifted and it doesn’t need Ribéry to win. How this plays out when Les Bleus play the tougher opponents they will face next remains to be seen.
Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is the author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sports in France, 1958-2010 (Lexington Books, 2013) and serves as a historian at the U.S. Department of State. All views are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government.