The many shades of France during their World Cup-winning run
PAUL POGBA WANTS you to watch him. That’s all he wants, really. For you to watch him pretend in mock-wonder which camera is beaming his gorgeous cheekbones on the large screen at the Luzhniki Stadium. For you to watch his statuesque and drenched face break into a grin when his hands lift the World Cup. Then, for you to wonder how the flying confetti of golden wrappers is stuck to the faces of all his teammates but not his; his gorgeous cheekbones, ostensibly, having shielded its self-contained gorgeousness against any sort of impurity, even if the impurity is gold.
Paul Pogba doesn’t just want you to watch him. He wants you to never take your eyes off him. It’s a French thing, maybe. That’s how he once watched Zinedine Zidane. That’s how France watched Zidane. That’s how two filmmakers told us, the world, to watch Zizou. Now, Pogba wants you to watch him the way the filmmakers once made you watch Zidane, without noticing anyone else on screen.
All Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, two filmmakers, wanted to do was tell the world to love their beloved Zizou, World Cup winner and France’s only goal-scorer in two World Cup finals. What they ended up doing was far more radical; their 2005 documentary, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, deconstructed the art of storytelling itself. Never before had a viewer gotten as close to the subject (you could hear him breathe, gargle his spit), and never before had a subject been as inadvertently naked and pure in his speech and actions in front of the viewer.
Seventeen cameras were placed around Estadio Bernabéu, home of Real Madrid. Hence, by extension, home of French football in the mid-2000s. And the powerful zoom lens of each of those cameras was aimed solely on Zizou, during a match against Villareal. Some cameras focused on his eyebrows. Others, on his shoes. But what all the cameras captured, in unison, was the undiluted loneliness of a football genius. For the length of Zidane’s stay on the Madrid pitch, we watch him walk, trot, run and sometimes kick a ball. But, mostly, we watch him blink and sigh, alone on a field of 22 players. Isolated in a stadium of nearly 80,000 spectators.
Gordon and Parreno weren’t being surreal for the sake of it. The film was a crystallised version of precisely how a nation watched football between 1998 and 2006, Zidane’s prime bookended by two World Cup final appearances, one won, the other lost. When France played, a country observed Zidane’s play. Everything else—exactly like in the documentary—was pilferage. Ask Pogba, who else?
“I was always watching him. The ball was in one place but I was always looking for Zidane,” Pogba once said. “On the pitch there are 22 players. But when you look for only one player, he has something special in him. Zidane has that.” During his career, Pogba has always wanted that. Which perhaps explains the bling and the hair—sometimes flaming red, sometimes creamy white. But what it most certainly explains is the hunger: to impress, to succeed, to be a world champion.
On July 15th, in the final of the World Cup against Croatia, Pogba showed the watching universe the pitfalls of not always having its eyes on him. In the 59th minute of the match, Pogba received a slow, rolling ball from Antoine Griezmann, the two standing on either side of Croatia’s box. Griezmann inside. Pogba just outside. Pogba’s first strike, with his right foot, crashed against the shins of Croatia’s captain, Luka Modrić, flipping him around, and ricocheted back to Pogba.
Modrić had only turned around momentarily. But he wasn’t watching Pogba, who, by then had struck the ball with his left foot—around Modrić, around the stationary defenders and beyond the outstretched goalkeeper, Danijel Subašić. And that was that. France had its third goal of the night, a country had its second World Cup trophy and Pogba had a couple of firsts: a goal in a World Cup final—à la Zidane—and a World Cup winners’ medal.
This, then, is how it all finished—a torrential summer rain lashing down over Moscow, dropping a wet curtain to put out the fires set during a blazing World Cup; a crackling World Cup. The roaring rain had also won a lopsided tussle over a confetti gun, ensuring sprayed pieces of glittering paper were stuck on every drenched body in its vicinity—on Pogba’s neck and on Olivier Giroud’s forehead. On Kylian Mbappé’s chin, on Samuel Umtiti’s earlobe and on Griezmann’s nose. On Didier Deschamps’ managerial career. And here, on faces black and white and on shirts of navy blue, the confetti settled and hardened, encasing the French football team in bandages of gold.
BEFORE THE GOLD dust, Les Bleus were shrouded in a web of self-doubt and insecurities. France hadn’t won a major tournament in 18 years. Their No. 10 in Russia was a 19-year-old, born five months after France’s only World Cup win in 1998 and who hadn’t represented the national team at the senior level until late last year. He, Mbappé, was also the most expensive teenager and the second most expensive footballer of all time to appear at a World Cup at $220 million, worth more than the sum total of entire teams (Australia and Peru) that France would face in the group stages.
The fact that a bank-breaking teen wearing football’s most sacred number wasn’t his country’s most scrutinised player in the lead-up to Russia 2018 should tell you everything you need to know about the pressures of being Paul Pogba. In 2016, Pogba broke the transfer-fee record when he moved back to Manchester United from Juventus. The money, to put it simply, didn’t reap dividends (what with Manchester United winning all of one League Cup in the last two seasons), placing him at the receiving end of widespread and unprecedented hatred in England.
Pogba at least has the respect of his teammates and fellow countrymen, something his boss, Deschamps, could never achieve as player or coach—despite being France’s longest serving manager, and more crucially, despite being the man who led France to the World Cup title all those years ago. Former France star Eric Cantona (who never did forgive Deschamps for plotting his omission from the Euro 1996 squad) labelled him ‘the water-carrier’ for his conservative style of play during his defensive midfielder days. It stuck. But Deschamps has been called worse. Samir Nasri accused him of being a ‘joker and a hypocrite’ when the striker was left out of Les Bleus’ 2014 World Cup squad.
Didier Deschamps’ stodgy strategies were widely criticised and the coach looked highly unlikely to mastermind a turnaround for the ages
Perhaps Karim Benzema too doesn’t think much of Deschamps. In 2016, he was left out of the European Championships held in France for allegedly blackmailing a teammate (Mathieu Valbuena) with a sex tape. Nothing was proved in court and by each passing year, calls for Benzema’s reinstatement into the national team and his No. 10 jersey grew louder, loud enough for Zidane, Deschamps’ old mate and Benzema’s coach at Real Madrid, to join the chorus prior to Russia 2018. But Deschamps remained stoic as ever. “I respect public opinion but it has absolutely no influence over my decisions,” he said.
And so they stumbled into Russia as firm outsiders, with Deschamps fielding as many as seven World Cup debutants in the opening game against Australia in Kazan. Mbappé teamed up beautifully with Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé upfront, the three of them showing flashes of individual finesse and what was to come later in the tournament when Deschamps would unshackle them from his nauseating negativity.
But against the Aussies, shackled they very much were—eking out a narrow, 2-1 win. In their next match, against Peru at Ekaterinburg, France resembled a Formula One car that was forced to drive an entire race behind a safety car. Only once or twice in the entirety of 90 minutes, Peru witnessed just how breathtaking France could be if only Deschamps chose to step on the pedal. Mostly, he didn’t. But France won 2-0: still not looking dominant like, say, Belgium did at the same stage.
France’s caution, their stodginess and Deschamps’ utter diffidence towards style and focus on scorelines peaked during their last group-stage game against Denmark at the Luzhniki, the situation heightened by the fact that neither team needed to win, or even score a goal. So, they didn’t—the only goalless draw of Russia 2018. Played under the strain of loud boos, whistles and catcalls, France shut down entirely, looking content to move the ball among the defenders and making frequent backpasses to the goalie from near the half-line, where almost all attempts ahead were self-warded off.
At the end of the worst 90 minutes of this World Cup, the Guardian wrote: ‘Through as group winners, France have also achieved their objective, albeit without delivering a performance in any of their three matches to suggest they are capable of winning the tournament.’ Deschamps’ lethargy was widely criticised by the media in France, and at this stage it looked highly unlikely for even France’s most ardent fan to hedge a bet on the coach masterminding a turnaround for the ages. A turnaround that would continue to do in the do-or-dies; get his team past the best player in the world and subsequently lock down the best team in this World Cup to fashion a phenomenal comeback that would take them to the trophy.
BALL BY HIS feet, Mbappé is running across a grassy park. His elbows are thrashing by his hips; his feet are a red blur, those socks pulling long strides. Yet, the ball is attracted to his toes; it never does leave his side. He is tireless and fearless, making the opposition drop their guard and jaws. This could well be Bondy, a commune in the northeastern rim of Paris, where the young man grew up, making several such runs, leaving every shirt-tugging midfielder and defender in his wake. Only, this grassy park is in the middle of Kazan Arena, in the pre-quarterfinal of the World Cup against Argentina.
In the 11th minute of the game, against the run of play and most certainly against Deschamps’ orders, Mbappé broke into one of World Cup football’s most famous, and fastest, runs. He received the ball on the break, near his box, and in about three strides, where he cut to his right, the 19-year old was by the half- line, leaving three Argentina midfielders, including the great Javier Mascherano, gasping. Mascherano, 34, gave him chase—or tried to give him chase—as Mbappé swerved left and tore deep into Argentine territory. Some 80 minutes later, Mascherano retired from international football.
In about three seconds after his feet had started pedalling from a position of rest, Mbappé had reached the edge of Argentina’s box, where defender Marcos Rojo body-checked him—preferring a certain penalty (which was converted by the master of set- pieces, Griezmann) over the humiliation of an open-play goal.
This moment of spontaneous, unfiltered genius reminded everyone watching, including the gaping eyes of Deschamps by the sidelines, of Ronaldo. Not the Ronaldo Mbappé grew up idolising and pasting magazine cut-outs of on every square-inch of his bedroom wall; that would be Cristiano. Mbappé had started resembling Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima, the bald and brilliant Brazilian who had left many gasping with similar runs during France 98; stopped only by the Deschamps-led winning side in the final (Mbappé wasn’t even born then). “Ronaldo was very, very quick,” Deschamps said after the match. “But I think Kylian is even quicker.”
In any other game, Mbappé’s run would’ve been a shoo-in for the moment of the match, maybe even the Cup. But he ended up outdoing himself with the passage of time, scoring half of France’s goals in the space of four minutes during their 4-3 win over Argentina— making him the first teen since a Brazilian greater than even Ronaldo to score two goals in a World Cup game. Pelé, in 1958. But Mbappé will be the first to admit that neither of his goals in this Round-of-16 match deserve reel-time in FIFA’s official World Cup film as much as his team-mate Benjamin Pavard’s does.
Pavard, a 22-year-old right-back who looks like he made up his age to gain entry into a pub, hadn’t played for France till last year. And neither had he scored an international goal. When he did, to equalise against Argentina in the 57th minute in Kazan, it was quite easily the most sensational kick of Russia 2018. He received the ball, on his run, from the left-back Lucas Hernandez, who had swung the ball in from the left shoulder of Argentina’s box, hoping that a French boot in the ‘D’ would deflect it goalward. When the ball bounced past the box, it reached Pavard, who, still on his run, clipped the sphere inside-out from the outside of his right boot, swooshing it left. The ball wailed inches away from the top corner of the goalpost, until it felt the epileptic force of the imparted spin and cut in right, screaming into and under the left perpendicular.
France’s wingbacks in Hernandez and Pavard had done their bit in the pre-quarters. France’s centrebacks, Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, would do theirs in the quarters and semis, respectively. Four years ago, at the Maracanã in Brazil, Varane, then 21, had failed to intercept a German free kick, which resulted in centreback Mats Hummels heading home the only goal of the tie, knocking France out of the World Cup in the quarterfinals. A prisoner to his crime until the quarterfinals in Russia, Varane redeemed himself in kind. In Nizhny Novgorod against Uruguay, he was Hummels and Cristhian Stuani was his former self, as Varane headed in the goal from a France free kick to break the deadlock. To break Uruguay’s resolve.
A month earlier, Varane had won the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid. A week later, he was about to win the FIFA World Cup—only the second player in this century, after Roberto Carlos (Real Madrid and Brazil, 2002), to do the greatest double in the same year. Barcelona’s Umtiti hasn’t yet won club football’s greatest honour. But on France’s road to the trophy, he played a role so pivotal in the semi-final against Belgium that that night in St. Petersburg will forever be remembered as the night when Umtiti alone defeated the most dangerous team of this tournament.
For 90 minutes and change, centreback Umtiti had Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku all tied up. Over the course of this tournament, the powerful Lukaku had fast earned a reputation of being the most feared striker during open play. In the opponent’s half, almost every touch of his had been decisive—either goal-bound or leading to one. Against France, however, the 6’4’’ hulk with granite plates for a chest, was invisible. Man-marked by Umtiti for the course of the night, Lukaku touched the ball all of 25 times for the entirety of the match—the least by any player in any role during the World Cup.
If that wasn’t incredible enough, Umtiti also scored the only goal of the night, heading in a Griezmann corner to send Belgium out and France into their third straight World Cup final played in Europe. And their first without Zinedine Yazid Zidane. But this French team had watched him growing up, observed him always and studied him closely enough, without ever peeling their eyes off him, to not miss him anymore.