QATAR 2022

Fee-fi-fo-fum, can France finally break the World Cup winners’ curse?

Fee-fi-fo-fum, can France finally break the World Cup winners’ curse?
Kylian Mbappe (C-R) and Olivier Giroud (L) of France warm up prior to the Uefa Nations League match between France and Austria in Saint-Denis, France, 22 September 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON)

After winning the Fifa World Cup in 1998, then being eliminated in the group stage four years later, France set in motion a trend of World Cup winners being eliminated in the group phase of the next tournament. Will they be the ones to break the jinx? To do so, they have to vanquish their own demons at the tournament.

France heads into the 2022 Qatar World Cup as defending champions. It’s the second time this has happened in the event’s history. 

Famously, when the European nation last arrived in the global soccer spectacle with this tag, they crash-landed ever so emphatically. That was back in 2002, after they had thumped the imposing Brazil 3-0 on French soil four years later.

Zinedine Zidane, who was the breakout star during that 1998 triumph, was ruled out with injury only days before the tournament. The same was true for Arsenal’s classy Robert Pires. 

Nevertheless, the team boasted a plethora of quality. Les Bleus could still call on the likes of midfield anchor Patrick Vieira, goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and the exciting Thierry Henry, among others.

These players could not prevent an embarrassing early exit for the defending champions, though. The French lost to both Denmark and Senegal — results that were sandwiched between a nil-nil stalemate against Uruguay. 

They ended the campaign rock bottom of their group, having failed to score a single goal from their three group games. By all accounts, a shameful outcome for the defending champions. 

The French can take solace from the fact that since they kickstarted that trend, three of the four subsequent defending champions have not succeeded in making it out of the group stage of the World Cup. 

In this hall of shame are 2006 winners Italy, 2010 champions Spain, and Germany, who clinched it in 2014. Only 2002 winners Brazil have managed to avoid the winners’ trend since France set the ball rolling.

Ten years after 2002-gate, grouped with Australia, former colony Tunisia, as well as Denmark, the French will hope to break this cycle that began with them. However, history is not on their side, from a personal perspective.

Kylian Mbappe (L) of France celebrates with his teammate Olivier Giroud (R) after scoring a goal during the Fifa World Cup 2018 Round of 16 soccer match between France and Argentina in Kazan, Russia, 30 June 2018. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ROBERT GHEMENT)

SA World Cup debacle 

Following that mishap in 2002, the French came into the 2006 World Cup in Germany keen to make amends. They did, too, led by midfield maestro Zidane, playing with a strapped knee throughout the tournament. 

As Les Bleus played their way to the final, the Real Madrid icon — clad in personalised golden boots — was at the forefront of a French charge to the final. Along the way they eliminated the likes of Spain and Brazil. That was before encountering a stubborn and equally classy Italian side in the final. 

Of course, Zidane undid all his hard work en route to the final — flooring Italian defender Marco Materazzi with a headbutt in a moment of madness. In the process, after being the best player in the tournament (at the ripe age of 34) leading up to that sequence, he effectively gifted the resilient Italians the golden trophy following his red card.

Four years later, as South Africa became the first African nation to host the tournament, the expectation was that France would ride that wave and possibly clinch a second World Cup. It was not to be.

The complete opposite happened and the French once again became their own worst enemies.

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The two-time men’s World Cup winners imploded during the 2010 edition of the global spectacle.

The players refused to train at their scheduled afternoon session, in protest against the French Football Federation’s decision to send striker Nicolas Anelka home.

The then Chelsea forward had argued with manager Raymond Domenech in the dressing room at halftime during France’s 2-0 defeat to Mexico. The players, backing their teammate, downed tools for some time before returning to the field.

They would bow out bottom of their group with zero wins after losing 2-1 to South Africa in their final group game. Another embarrassing ending for the French. 

Olivier Giroud of France (L), Kylian Mbappe of France (C) and Antoine Griezmann of France celebrate during the Fifa World Cup 2018 Group C preliminary round match between France and Peru in Ekaterinburg, Russia, 21 June 2018. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ROMAN PILIPEY)

History repeats itself?

France arrived in Qatar with just one win from their previous six matches. Two ended in a draw, while the rest were losses. It’s not a good look for Didier Deschamps’ men.

Nevertheless, they cannot be written off. Even without their injured midfield dynamic duo of N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, the French possess enough quality to reach the knockout stages of the tournament — on paper at least.

They have suffered some more key personnel losses along the way, though. Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe had travelled with the team in hopes of shaking off an injury that has kept him out of large chunks of action for his club so far this season. 

The exciting Christopher Nkunku was also forced to pull out of the team after being injured in training with the national team – a great loss for Les Bleus, as the RB Leipzig forward has scored 17 goals from 23 appearances in all competitions.

To compound their troubles, Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema has also recently been ruled out of the tournament with a muscle tear. 

Meanwhile, there is attention on Kylian Mbappe. The star seems to always draw the spotlight. Prior to the team’s departure for Qatar, the forward refused to take part in sponsor activities over a disagreement regarding image rights with the French Football Federation.

With all these ingredients considered, is France set for another World Cup capitulation? Let’s wait and see. DM


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