On July 15 2018, France had just won the football World Cup in Moscow, and Russian president Vladimir Putin and Fifa president Gianni Infantino were fraternally taking turns to hand out the medals.
French president Emmanuel Macron, his suit soaked after a rainstorm when Putin was briefly the only dignitary equipped with an umbrella, buzzed around hugging each French player like a brother even kissing Kylian Mbappé on the forehead.
France coach Didier Deschamps had just begun his characteristically understated press conference when a dozen players burst into the room, chanting his name and spraying journalists with what seemed to be energy drinks and champagne.
The players danced, sang, disappeared, then returned and did it again. Just before they finally left, their unofficial leader, Paul Pogba, shouted, “Vive la France! Vive la république!”
Oh happy days. Now the French are preparing to defend their World Cup in a different world. Putin will not be handing out the medals in Qatar, and Pogba will not be receiving one: he and fellow midfielder N’Golo Kanté will miss the tournament through injury.
Deschamps remains France’s coach, but is now saddled with the winner’s curse: four of the past five world champions have been knocked out of the subsequent tournament in the first round, including France in 2002. How can Les Bleus, with just one win in their past six matches, avoid that fate?
The French have played three of the past six World Cup finals, winning two, but are locked in a cycle between triumph and complacency. After they win, they get slack: 1998 was followed by 2002, and after 2006 came 2010, the French “annus horribilis” in which the team stank out the World Cup while also staging an unforgettable mid-tournament strike.
This time, the world champions may have already got their complacency out of their system. At the delayed Euro 2020 last year, they were leading Switzerland 3-1 with 10 minutes left when they stopped running or concentrating. After conceding two late goals, they were knocked out on penalties.
It may be a blessing if injuries force them to renew in Qatar. Beyond the loss of Pogba and Kanté, mainstays Karim Benzema, Raphaël Varane, Lucas Hernandez and Presnel Kimpembe may struggle for fitness. If that reduces French quality, it should also limit complacency.
The French are not starting the tournament with the confidence of world champions. Their three defeats in 2022 so far are already their joint worst for a calendar year. Two of those were against Denmark, who await them again in the group, alongside the more digestible Australia and Tunisia.
France’s biggest worry is in the middle of the park: not one midfielder from 2018 is coming to Qatar. The three-man midfield will be built around Aurélien Tchouaméni, 22, now established as a starter for both France and his club side Real Madrid.
A playmaker who can also defend — and who, in the French phrase, is “built like a removals man” — he appears to have it all. Juventus’s Adrien Rabiot should accompany him, along with possibly Youssouf Fofana, who debuted for France just two months ago, though the hardworking Antoine Griezmann might drop back from the forward line into midfield.
At the back, injuries permitting, the 2018 team is almost intact. Hugo Lloris is playing his fourth World Cup in goal, while Varane, Hernandez and right-back Benjamin Pavard all started in Russia. Either Hernandez or his younger brother Theo could start at left-back, though Lucas may instead accompany Varane in central defence.
Up front, no team has more riches: Griezmann, Mbappé and Benzema, backed up by Olivier Giroud, 36, who needs just two goals to equal Thierry Henry’s record of 51 for France.
If wingers are required, France have Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembelé, who is finally beginning to look like the star Barcelona thought he was when they paid Borussia Dortmund €140mn for him in 2017.
France’s likely starting team includes six world champions as well as the winner of the Ballon d’Or for the world’s best player in Benzema. And the French system continues to produce enough talent to staff multiple national teams: several players representing African nations, including Tunisia and Cameroon, grew up in the suburbs of French cities.
Deschamps, meanwhile, will be sniffing out complacency daily. After a decade as sélectionneur, he remains beloved in France: the captain who lifted the World Cup in 1998 yet still contrives to look like a gnomish village café proprietor from his native south-west. “DD” has the status to drop any star who is not shaping up.
At best, France can be the perfect combination at this World Cup: humbled world champions with a dash of youth. At worst, it is 2002 all over again.