The view from Paris: ‘French supporters associate Australia with rugby, not football’

France are the first and biggest test awaiting the Socceroos in Russia and, after narrowly missing out on silverware in the UEFA Euro 2016 final, a team featuring Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann will have their eyes on the FIFA World Cup trophy.

The World Game sent Kieran Pender to the French capital find out more about Australia’s group C opponents, and you don’t have to look far in Paris to find football.

On the Champs-Elysees, French mega-club Paris Saint-Germain flaunt their wealth with an ostentatious club shop.

Along the leafy residential streets of the posh 16th arrondissement, children take advantage of a quiet back street to enjoy a neighbourhood kick-about.

In L'Equipe, an iconic daily sports newspaper, page after page is dedicated to the round ball game.

And at cafes and bars, chatter quickly turns to the mixed performance of the French national team during the recent international break.

France wasted a two-goal lead against Colombia to fall 3-2, before easily dispatching World Cup hosts Russia. With the 2018 World Cup around the corner, Parisians were hoping for more polished performances.

“Expectations are high,” said Tom Williams, a football writer specialising in French football and author of Do You Speak Football.

“There is a feeling that this group of players are definitely capable of winning a major tournament.”

It was hoped that Euro 2016, held in France, was to be that tournament. But a strike from Eder late into extra-time saw Portugal anointed European champions instead.

“Many nations would have been heartbroken to lose a major final on home soil, but in France the reaction was fairly philosophical,” Williams added.

“Didier Deschamps kept his job and with new talents like Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar in the ranks, the team now looks even stronger.”

The French national team is among the most storied in world football.

A French representative side finished runner-up in the second ever modern Olympics at the beginning of the 20th century, and almost six decades later France placed third in an early edition of the World Cup. Les Bleus then secured Euro 1984 and claimed Olympic gold in the same year.

It was in 1998, though, that French football reached its grandest peak.

“For French football and French history generally, the World Cup triumph on home soil was a tremendous event,” explained Cyprien Tardieu, a journalist for Yahoo Sport.

“Personally, I was nine and it is one of the best memories of my life.”

“I remember the fans partying on the Champs-Elysees. It was sensational – I am not sure I will live to see a moment like that again in my life. Everyone in France remembers where they were on that day.”

France Football journalist Patrick Urbini, who has covered the national team for almost four decades, says the victory had a widespread social impact.

"It changed the perception, popularity and status of football players in this country for ever,” Urbini said. 

“They captured the public imagination and have kept a special place in everyone’s hearts ever since.”

In the subsequent years, France again became European champions (2000), twice won the FIFA Confederations Cup (2001 and 2003) and lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup final.

A down-turn saw France finish last in the team’s 2010 World Cup group, with players openly revolting and one newspaper describing the scenes as among “the darkest days in the country's football history.”

It became known as the “Knysna nightmare” after France’s base city in South Africa, and – according to Urbini – “will always be remembered” by the French public.

But the chaos soon abated. France progressed to the quarter-final of Euro 2012 (losing to eventual winners Spain), and reached the same stage of the 2014 World Cup (losing out to winners Germany).

“The seeds of the current team first became evident in 2013, when France won the U20 World Cup with Samuel Umtiti and Paul Pogba as key players,” says Eric Devin, chief features writer with Get French Football News.

Such is the depth of talent that Paul Pogba, one of the most expensive players in the world, is not even the team’s figurehead.

This mantle has been assumed by Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann, and during Euro 2016 L'Equipe dubbed the present group of players “Generation Griezmann”.

“There is potentially even more to come following the U19 side’s victory at the 2016 European Championships,” Devin added.

With a star-studded team and on the back of a strong qualification campaign, where France topped a group ahead of Sweden, the Netherlands and Bulgaria, fans in Paris are barely concerned by their Australian opponents.

“To be honest, the majority of French supporters probably associate Australia more closely with rugby than football,” Williams said. “France has not had the same exposure to Australian footballers as England, for example, so they are still seen as a bit of a novelty."
When the draw took place in December, the prevailing sentiment across France was that they had avoided other more difficult groups.

“The front page of L'Equipe showed Diego Maradona pulling Peru's name out of the pot alongside a headline: ‘The Hand of God,’” Williams said.

“Inside, the paper reminded its readers that the last time France played Australia, in an October 2013 friendly, they beat them 6-0.”

Such is France’s confidence that they will progress from the group stage that Tardieu believes the team will play one formation for the first three matches and then change ahead of the knock-out round.

“Deschamps likes to use the 4-4-2 system to highlight Griezmann, who can move infield and play behind Olivier Giroud,” Tardieu said.

“He will probably play this system against Australia, Peru and Denmark, before changing to 4-3-3 for the second round. It is impossible to face Brazil, Argentina, Spain or Portugal with only two midfielders.”

When the Socceroos take to the Kazan Arena pitch on Saturday 16 June for the team’s World Cup opener against France, the opposition’s focus will largely be elsewhere. The French expect an easy win – anything less is unthinkable.

Yet Urbini, an elder statesman of French football media, offers a sliver of hope for Australian fans.

“Les Bleus cannot compare yet with the usual suspects Spain, Germany or Brazil in terms of quality, steel, consistency, experience, collective strength or leadership.”

Is that enough for the Socceroos to snatch a result against seventh best team in the world?

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6 min read
Published 14 April 2018 at 9:50am
By Kieran Pender