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How France went back to the past to secure a brighter future

France's World Cup win bore several marks of the side that went all the way in 1998

There a lot of emphasis placed on progression in football.

Out with the old, in with the new. No more space for 4-4-2. That’s the name of the mixtape sorted.

But- like vinyl, baggy football shirts and Twin Peaks- France’s World Cup win was awash with sepia tone nostalgia.

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Take Olivier Giroud, France’s much maligned Calvin Klein battering ram.

He didn’t find the back of the net at the World Cup. In fact he hardly crossed the half-way line.

His role was to rough the centre-backs up and absorb whatever comes the other way, allowing Antoine Griezmann a safe passage to lurk in the half-spaces he so expertly thrives in.

Think ‘False 9’ without the subtlety. A double bluff.

In that sense Giroud did exactly what Stephane Guivarc’h did in 1998.

Guivarc’h’s stats were as follows: no goals, no acclaim, 60 million detractors and one World Cup winner’s medal.

Do you think Guivarc’h cares that his name will forever top Google search results for ‘The 10 Worst Premier League Strikers’?

No, because he’s a World Cup winner.

Le Fall Guy

Reuters
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Le Fall Guy

Then there’s Benjamin Pavard, who’s taken a break from shooting Trainspotting 3 to fill in at right-back for France.

He’s that annoying mate who’s good at everything they turn their hand to.

Sure, he’s played centre-back all season for Stuttgart. But when football’s biggest event came around he simply flicked the switch and transformed into a buccaneering full-back.

And he scored the goal of the tournament for good measure.

For 99.99% of the planet that would seem super-human. Not for Lilian Thuram.

Thuram switched between centre-back and full-back at will, lining up on the right side of France’s back four during the ’98 triumph.

His job was made considerably easier by the presence of Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf inside him, just as Pavard’s was by the imperious Raphael Varane.

One happy family

AFP
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One happy family

Now to trot out two of the most overused comparisons in football.

N’Golo Kante is for this side what Claude Makelele was for France over so many years, although he wasn’t a part of the squad in 1998 or for the European Championships in 2000.

But Kante has actually managed to do the near impossible and exceed Makelele’s water-carrying abilities.

He’s taken the ‘Makelele role’ forward by leaving the centre of the pitch and going wherever his six lungs take him.

Kante putting numbers on the board

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Kante putting numbers on the board

Now for the comparisons between Paul Pogba and Patrick Vieira. If it was a blind taste test they’d be salt and pepper.

Vieira thought nothing of following up a crunching 50/50 tackle on the halfway line with a cute finish from six-yards out.

Pogba is all about retention, using his long legs and shape shifting feet to get out of tight situations before launching the ball in the channel to Mbappe.

AlSo PaUl PoGbA hAs CoLoUrFuL hAiR.

Triggered

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Triggered

Another connection between 2018 and 1998 is the king, the heir and the one who’s somewhere in between.

Ronaldo won the 1998 Golden Ball so it’s fitting that, 20 years later, the closest thing to O Fenômeno was the best player at the tournament, even if Luka Modric officially pipped Kylian Mbappe to the award.

Mbappe is a constant, terrifying reminder that no matter how many robots you bring into the game of football, pace will always be king.

The fact he wears the no.10 shirt means many people discuss him in the same vein as Zinedine Zidane.

But for that role you need to look towards Griezmann.

With one move he can take the game away from you. Like Zizou, that move is just as likely to be in the head as it is a cultured stroke of the boot.

If there was an award handed out for the highest footballing IQ at the tournament it would already be named in Griezmann’s honour.

Plus, he’s got the Cholismo snarling bastardy only present in players coached by Diego Simeone, although avoided the temptation to plant a headbutt on Dejan Lovren’s chest.

Old and new

AFP or licensors
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Old and new

The final nod to the past?

It wouldn’t be fair to end without discussing Didier Deschamps, a man who’s taken the France to consecutive major finals with minimum fuss and has now coached and played in a victorious World Cup winning side.

You wouldn’t expect anything less from Deschamps, given he made a career out of simultaneously scaling the heights of football while invoking the rage of mavericks with his offensively low-key style.

This is very much a team moulded in his and 1998’s image, down to the fact players stroked Adil Rami’s beard for luck in the same way Laurent Blanc kissed Fabien Barthez’s head 20 years ago.

Sure, he’s not revolutionised the wheel, but he already had all the answers to the test in front of him. He’d have been a fool not to use them.