June 30, 2014
Redemption is not easy to attain.
Four years on and the scars still remain.
When France’s footballers left for Brazil, they were under no illusions — it cannot happen again.
At South Africa 2010, “Les Bleus” became a laughing stock as players and coaches clashed, strikes were threatened and results embarrassed a nation.
Players were suspended, the entire country waged war on a group which had imploded and exited at the group stage after failing to win a single game.
Four years ago the picture was grim.
Fast-forward to the present and perhaps, just perhaps, France may get the opportunity to shock the world for all the right reasons.
A 2-0 victory over Nigeria in Brasilia on Monday ensured its progress to the quarterfinals and a meeting with either Germany or Algeria.
It is a far cry for the disillusionment and disappointment which cast a shadow of French football during its last foray into the World Cup.
“What happened, happened,” coach Didier Deschamps said when he announced his 2014 World Cup roster on national television.
“That won’t go away. It put a stamp on our history. But we don’t need to discuss it again.”
Deschamps and his players have spoken at length of moving on from the embarrassment of four years ago — but few expected them to achieve much in Brazil.
After all, this is a France side which only just scraped into the tournament courtesy of a 3-0 playoff victory over Ukraine in Paris after suffering a 2-0 victory in the first leg.
But Deschamps, a World Cup hero on home soil in 1998, has brought about a unity in the squad which has not been seen for many a year.
His decision to leave out Manchester City’s Samir Nasri caused controversy outside of the squad — but it did not surprise those who know Deschamps as the single-minded man that he is.
He commands respect — it helps if you’ve won the World Cup and European Championships as well as a host of titles at club level.
And his players are responding — even when not at their best as they were during the first half against Nigeria.
But such is the quality at his disposal, Deschamps never panicked, even when Nigeria appeared to take the game to his side in the opening 45 minutes.
Paul Pogba’s 79th minute header and an own-goal from Joseph Yobo smoothed France’s passage into the next round following a difficult afternoon.
“I am very proud of everything we did from the start,” Deschamps told French television after the game.
“There was tension out there. They are a very strong side and there were a lot of duels.
“But we’re through. We’re in the quarter finals and we’ll do everything we can to go a stage further.”
Only three African teams have ever reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup — Ghana the last to do so four years ago.
But Nigeria’s campaign has been blighted by inconsistency and rows over appearance fees — a matter so serious that the country’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, was forced to intervene and assure players they would be paid.
Form has also been a problem — a drab goalless draw against Iran in its opening game of the tournament was followed by a narrow victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A 3-2 defeat by Argentina, in which Lionel Messi scored twice, ensured Nigeria qualified in second place despite having only managed a solitary win.
But France, a side which won its group with a style and swagger which was so sorely lacking four years ago, hinted at a far more difficult challenge.
After all, Nigeria had managed just one victory in its previous 11 World Cup matches and suffered defeat on both occasions it had reached the second round in 1994 and 1998.
But if anyone had expected France to simply brush Nigeria aside, they were sorely mistaken.