They no longer hold their title of world champions but there’s still an air of greatness, an aura, when their feet touch Irish soil and the French national team take in their new surroundings.
hen Latvia turned up for their pre-match press conference ahead of their friendly in Dublin last week, there was just one representative from the Irish media – the man from the Irish Independent – and a few stragglers from a TV crew from Riga, barely enough to make up a five-a-side team.
But when Kylian Mbappe and then coach Didier Deschamps reported for media duties in Lansdowne Road on the eve of tonight’s big qualifier, the room was packed.
When Mbappe and Deschamps – both World Cup winners as players – speak, the world listens. A week ago, the French football team, like the strike-ridden French nation, seemed to be on the verge of chaos, feeding off division and rancour, a reported rift in the camp over the appointment of Mbappe as captain and questions over how the squad would handle the loss of their World Cup crown.
Since then France have put Netherlands to the sword, the on-field chemistry between Mbappe and the man who was passed over for the captaincy, Antoine Griezmann, putting to bed any suggestion of disharmony. “I think, to be honest, we are a really united group. That has been the case all week. We needed to step up and bring people together. You saw it in the Dutch match on Friday,” said Mbappe.
In fact, the only time that captain and coach seemed to not be on the same page was a joke from Deschamps: waiting outside the press conference room while Mbappe spoke to the media, he had heard the PSG player answer, in flawless English, a question about Evan Ferguson. Deschamps quipped that his level of English would not allow him do the same.
To his credit, Mbappe tipped his hat to the Brighton teenager, admitting the French had done their research on Ferguson. “We’ve seen some clips about him, of course. He’s a good striker, an important striker for that team, but we hope tomorrow he’s going to do nothing, and that that means we are going to win,” he said, adding that the French squad had watched some of Ireland’s game against Latvia from their base outside Paris last week.
“It is a friendly game, so it is hard to take any lessons from it, but they play an interesting system with three at the back. They have a reputation for playing a physical style, but they also play a lot of good football, so it is not going to be easy for us. We will have to be aggressive, and we have to play our game. We are not going to qualify just by beating the Netherlands, we have a really difficult match ahead of us.”
A coach who has won the World Cup as a player and manager and been in charge of the French side against Ireland twice and won both, Deschamps is entitled to some arrogance, especially as his side have already made a major statement about Euro 2024 qualification with that 4-0 hammering of Netherlands.
Confidence is so high in some quarters about France not just winning tonight but winning well that Mbappe was asked about bridging the three-goal gap between his tally of international goals (38) and that of Michel Platini, though Deschamps played down that talk.
“It’s true that Ireland have this enthusiasm, this determination which is part of their football DNA, but that is not everything; they also have quality, the are capable of playing on the ground. You also have to mention the support they have that will push their team forward,” Deschamps said.