On July 16, 2018, I landed at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. It was the day before my 31st birthday, and I had intended to spend five days in my favorite city. Caveat - I can't consider any town in which I've lived to be my favorite. When I booked my taxi, I didn't expect that we'd be rerouted around a World Cup parade.
That night, after I checked into my Airbnb, I experienced one of the most incredible things I'll likely have witnessed in my whole life. I went for a drink, and Paris was on fire. Not literally. Parisians were laughing, crying, screaming, singing, and dancing in the streets. French flags were worn as capes, face paint adorned every other person's cheeks, and bartenders were...generous.
I had hoped to attend the parade myself. Still, I didn't expect it to happen less than 24 hours after Hugo Lloris raised that 2018 World Cup trophy above his head in Russia.
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Fast forward to today, and this French team should have been poised to repeat. However, France is missing a handful of guys who would have otherwise been on the match-day squad.
As it was, N'golo Kanté and Paul Pogba were already known to be out of the tournament before the squad was announced. The Chelsea lynchpin was a vital piece of the French win four years ago, but at least they had the chance to plan to be without him. Then, after announcing the team, Christopher Nkunku and Presnel Kimpembe went down. They were replaced before national team training started.
After arriving in Qatar and starting training, striker Karim Benzema pulled up with a training injury. And now this year's Ballon D'or winner finds himself on the sidelines for the second consecutive World Cup Final. While the French will be missing key pieces of their attack, they still have a certain weapon to push forward.
Kylian Mbappé Needs to Play at his Best
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While they may be without Kanté, the puppeteer, and Benzema, Les Bleus are in good hands with Kylian Mbappé. The 23-year-old was a hero in Russia and will look to do so again in Qatar with an admittedly weakened attack.
Olivier Giroud could be a like-for-like replacement for Benzema. Antoine Griezmann has also seen his troubles as of late. If they can be the supporting cast that Mbappé needs, he'll likely be able to put a nation on his shoulders to attempt to make the 2022 World Cup Champions France.
Didier Deschamps will need magic from his talisman to find their way out of Group D. The beauty of Mbappé is he will be able to bring a necessary versatility to the pitch. He'll float around a top three, sometimes playing on the left, sometimes on the right, and sometimes right up the middle. The real key is whether his teammates can find the right rhythm alongside him. Ousmane Dembele and Kingsley Coman will likely need to be the guys to do it.
But can he focus on his country and not the transfer noise regarding his attempted exit from PSG to Real Madrid?
Will Nations League Struggles Carry Over to Qatar 2022?
There have been some serious inconsistencies for this French team as of late. They were barely able to stave off relegation from Nations League A, but just barely. In their six matches, they were only able to collect five points. They beat Austria at home but drew them away. They lost to Croatia at home but were able to pick up a point away. And they lost twice to Denmark, again lurking in the group stage along with Tunisia and Australia.
The Nations League is essentially an international competition in the UEFA Euro region split into 4 leagues. Depending on results, a nation can be in League A, B, C, or D. The above, along with the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Portugal, are examples of League A. Scotland, Iceland. Finland is in B, as will England soon. League C ranges from Turkey to Gibraltar, while League D only has seven teams in two groups, with Latvia and Moldova looking top there.
France will need to stand tall and not let their Nations League disappointment get in their way.
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While there are some veterans, there are also a handful of players who have the opportunity to make a splash, cementing their place in Les Bleus for years to come. Defenders Joules Kounde and William Saliba, as well as midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni, are three of those players.
That's good for the defense, getting some solid younger options long-term. Saliba has been playing well enough with Premier League leaders Arsenal to warrant getting a significant look.
Denmark is going to prove pesky. And, if their first match is any indication, so will Tunisia. France opens their campaign against Australia, who will be looking to push a massive upset like Saudi Arabia was able to pull over Lionel Messi and Argentina.
Depending on their place, they could see themselves facing Argentina in the round of 16. The best scenario for the French would be to win their group and see Mexico or Poland.
They could sneak out, and if they do, they may be able to find their way to the quarterfinals. Still, I wouldn't expect them to make it as far as the semifinals or to repeat as World Champions. The last time France won the World Cup in 1998, they didn't escape the group stage of the 2002 tournament. So it's going to be a tall task.
If Not France, Then Who?
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With the likelihood of the French being able to repeat being slim, who could take up the mantle? Can Uruguay or Mane-less Senegal bank on a mixture of young and old talent? Can Brazil or Germany raise the trophy yet again? Could South Korea, the USMNT, or the Dutch be surprise contenders? Can Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi finally exorcise that final demon?
Only time will tell; this is why we all love the beautiful game.
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