TWENTY years after their first triumph, the French national football team are again world champions. Their 4-2 victory over Croatia in Moscow ended a World Cup that turned out to be perhaps the most gripping in a generation.
The 2018 World Cup was richer in drama than it was in elite standard football. While France will not be regarded as a team to rival Spain in 2010 or Germany in 2014, the last two World Cup winners, they overcame the misfortune of being in the trickier half of the draw to reach the final, defeating Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium before beating Croatia. All four of their knockout-stage victories were secured in regular time.
In one sense, France should have been favoured going into the tournament. Its collection of players is worth more than those of any country, according to Transfermarkt, a website that collates information on players’ transfer fees. Even though France’s most valuable assets are their devastating array of attacking talent, the team generally played pragmatic, counterattacking football in the World Cup.
Like Germany, the previous World Cup winners, France is ideally suited to benefit from European knowledge networks. Young players have the benefit of Ligue One, the national club league, being among the “Big Five” leagues in the world. They can also easily move to other elite clubs in Europe, learning from the best players and coaches: France’s victorious squad includes players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. With a population of 67m, France also has a huge pool of players; Croatia, the defeated finalists, is a nation of just 4m. France’s wealth is also significant given the importance of infrastructure, coaching and sports science in producing elite players—and, perhaps even more importantly, meticulous scouting to ensure that talent is not wasted.
France has used these institutional advantages to build a famed, almost industrial, youth development system. In 1988, the French Football Federation formed Clairefontaine, the country’s central football academy. This helped to nurture the generation who would win the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships. A period of strife followed, culminating in a player strike during the 2010 World Cup, but France’s national team has evolved once again, reaching the final of the European Championships in 2016 before lifting the World Cup. One notable change, a Daily Telegraph report from Clairefontaine found, has been a greater embrace of smaller and more technical players at youth level in recent years.
The vibrant football culture in Paris, which consistently produces more World Cup players than any other city on earth, has underpinned France’s triumph. Eight of the 23 men in France’s World Cup squad—including star players Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté—grew up in the Parisian banlieues, where football is dominant. “There is only football,” Mr Pogba said. “Whether at school or in the neighbourhood, everyone will play football.” Yet raw talent and zest for the game is married to a structure that gives children the best chance of their talent being nurtured: there are 30,000 coaches working in greater Paris alone, according to The Independent.
So France’s success embodies the broader reasons why European nations are preeminent in international football, despite predictions that they would be caught up as the rest of the world gained experience. Since 2006, 13 of the 16 semi-finalists, representing nine different countries, in the World Cup have been from Europe, including all four in this year’s tournament. Indeed, European nations have become more dominant against those from the rest of the world since 2002. The last four World Cups have now been won by Italy, Spain, Germany and France respectively—the four most populous nations in continental Europe.
There is good reason to think France’s team may improve further in the coming years. France were the second-youngest of the 32 squads in the World Cup. The precocious Mr Mbappé—who produced a brilliant performance in the 4-3 victory over Argentina, and then became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pelé in 1958—is only 19. A measure of France’s depth is that Ousmane Dembele, a forward who cost Barcelona over €100m ($117m) last summer, made only one substitute appearance in the knockout stage. A number of other fine players, including Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette, Karim Benzema and Adrien Rabiot, did not even make the squad.
In international football, luck—refereeing decisions and the bounce of the ball in matches, and the draw in knockout matches—plays a huge role, rendering dynasty-building far harder than it is in the club game. France certainly benefited from its share of good fortune, including an own goal by Croatia early in the final match. Nonetheless, the youth of France’s side means that they are eminently capable of achieving further tournament wins. Manager Didier Deschamps, now only the third man to win a World Cup as a player and a coach, will fondly recall what France did next after their previous World Cup victory: they won the European Championships too.