France begin new era with Mbappe as captain
Three months on from their agonising defeat in the World Cup final in Doha, France begin a new era with several veterans having retired and Kylian Mbappe handed the captain’s armband for their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
The aftermath of that loss on penalties to Argentina in Qatar has been turbulent, to say the least.
Off the field, a series of scandals brought down veteran French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet but not before he had agreed on a deal for coach Didier Deschamps to remain in his job until 2026.
Not everyone in France agreed with the decision to extend the reign of a coach who has been in charge since 2012, especially as Zinedine Zidane is seen as an ideal successor.
On the pitch, the biggest name to bow out is goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who retired from international duty at the age of 36 after over a decade as captain.
The Tottenham ‘keeper became France’s most-capped player during the World Cup and his departure left Deschamps needing a new goalkeeper as well as a new skipper.
With long-term back-up goalkeeper Steve Mandanda also quitting, AC Milan’s Mike Maignan will take the gloves when France welcome the Netherlands to the Stade de France on Friday for their opening qualifier.
There was never any doubt about that, but there was some doubt over who would become captain, with Antoine Griezmann a contender.
Yet it was impossible to ignore Mbappe, who showed himself to be a leader with his breathtaking hat-trick in the World Cup final. At 24, the Paris Saint-Germain forward could realistically skipper the side for a decade.
“Kylian ticked all the boxes to have that extra responsibility. But on the other hand it is nothing against Antoine who has always been an important player,” Deschamps said this week.
Olivier Giroud, France’s all-time record goal-scorer, is still there at 36. But Raphael Varane has retired, as has Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, who missed the World Cup after succumbing to injury on the eve of the tournament.
“You can’t replace people who have been there for 10 years, you need time,” admitted Deschamps, who said he understood the decision of Manchester United centre-back Varane to step down at the age of 29.
“The demands of the highest level can lead to fatigue, whether that be physical or psychological,” said Deschamps, who himself quit playing entirely at 32.
Strength in depth
The luxury for Deschamps is that France’s conveyor belt of talent seems to be never-ending.
Varane’s retirement opened the door for Chelsea prospect Wesley Fofana to get a first call-up at 22.
He and Arsenal’s William Saliba both then pulled out injured, but the coach then turned to ex-Barcelona centre-back Jean-Clair Todibo, now excelling at Nice.
In midfield, with 2018 World Cup winners Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante still struggling to recover full fitness, Deschamps has handed a deserved call-up to Khephren Thuram.
The 21-year-old Italy-born son of France legend Lilian Thuram has been rewarded for his outstanding form with Nice.
The marauding midfielder is the younger brother of Borussia Moenchengladbach forward Marcus, who is also in the squad.
Real Madrid midfielder Eduardo Camavinga is likely to play an increasingly important role for his country, and possibly at left-back as the 20-year-old did during the World Cup final.
The same applies to the Eintracht Frankfurt forward Randal Kolo Muani, who almost scored a dramatic extra-time winner late in the World Cup final.
No wonder Deschamps, now 54, wanted to stay through to the next World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, such is the talent at his disposal.
With France’s group also featuring the Republic of Ireland, Greece and Gibraltar, and the top two going through to next year’s European Championship in Germany, qualification appears a formality.
But Deschamps, whose team face Ireland in Dublin next Monday, is taking nothing for granted.
“There is never any margin for error at the top level, but here we are going to have to be at our best right away,” he insisted.
“We need to be focused, obsessed even, on our aim of qualification. We must not think we have already qualified. We need to get back to reality.”
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