France’s World Cup title defense is already a chaotic, snowballing mess

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The France men’s national soccer team is no stranger to madness. In the 21st century alone, biggest hits include a sex tape blackmail case, a gambler mutiny, racial odds and a headbutt. But never before has controversy developed into the kind of pre-World Cup storm that is now brewing near Paris.

In their preparation for Qatar 2022 Les Bleus only won one of six games. They lost their second straight win to Denmark on Sunday and look on paper and in practice like impostors of the all-star team that conquered all comers four years ago.

However, the results are the least of their problems. In the past two months there has been a chilling case of extortion and witchcraft allegations; a photoshoot boycott and dispute between the team’s brightest star Kylian Mbappé and the French Football Federation over image rights; reports of cover-up of sexual abuse and harassment within the Federation; and a string of injuries that have reduced a once absurdly deep squad to a shockingly average one.

World Cup champions have a habit of imploding. The last three and four of five this century have failed to progress beyond the group stage. However, the implosions typically peak while the tournament and on the field. France, on the other hand, seems to be already underway and knows no borders.

“The atmosphere is heavy,” admitted head coach Didier Deschamps earlier this month.

Of course, there is still time to ease the heaviness and bring countless talents to the surface. But given the characters involved and the historical precedent, no one is betting on it.

Injuries galore for France

Already in 2018 and in the years since, Deschamps could have fielded two different teams capable of fighting for a World Cup. He’s struggling to build one at the moment as injuries have decimated his starting XI and reserves.

Among those absent this month were Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema, Kingsley Coman, Adrien Rabiot, Theo Hernandez, Lucas Hernandez, Presnel Kimpembe and Hugo Lloris. Their absence opened doors for up-and-coming and fringe players – some of whom were also crushed by untimely loads or hits. Ibrahima Konaté, Boubacar Kamara and Lucas Digne also missed two September games. And then, in the first, Jules Kounde and Mike Maignan, Lloris’ deputy goalkeeper, joined the overflowing list – a list that alone could probably win a World Cup.

Kylian Mbappe is pretty much the only thing France has to offer ahead of the 2022 World Cup. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Most of the injuries, including Kante’s and Benzema’s, should heal in time for Qatar. The main doubt is Pogba, who sustained a meniscus injury in July. He initially decided against surgery and attacked a rehabilitation process that put him on track to return before the World Cup. However, after some testing on the anti-gravity treadmill and on the training ground, he consulted doctors and underwent surgery. Juventus manager Max Allegri now says Pogba will only play for his club after the World Cup. How fit he will be in November is unclear.

However, the other injuries are relevant in that they were robbed Les Bleus their only meaningful time to gel ahead of Qatar. Their international window in June was marred by the absence of Deschamps, who was mourning the death of his father. Their September window featured the likes of Jonathan Clauss, Youssouf Fofana, Benoît Badiashile, Adrien Truffert and Randal Kolo Muani – players who are unlikely to play a role in defending the world title. The full squad will only be reunited a week before the start of the World Cup.

His attempt to repeat it will depend on his ability to evolve, something six decades of predecessors have so often failed to do. The last consecutive men’s world champions were Brazil in 1958 and 1962.

However, his viability has been hampered, if not prevented, by his current incompleteness – and perhaps the myriad off-field issues that require his energy and attention.

French Football Federation toxicity and dysfunction

Some of the issues go well beyond the current men’s national team. Noel Le Graet, the dinosaur FFF president who has denied the existence of racism in football in the past, has been charged with sexual misconduct and harassment of federation staff.

Le Graet, now 80, has allegedly sent inappropriate messages to several female employees and encouraged a culture where misogynistic and harassing behavior is rampant. Several women have given up their jobs at the association to escape it. Senior male officials have allegedly and repeatedly made jokes about women’s appearance and dress.

The FFF has also reportedly attempted to systematically quash multiple allegations of sexual abuse, including the abuse of youth players, across French football.

The toxicity and dysfunction is wide-ranging and often flies over the heads of current players. But it hasn’t entirely escaped them and sometimes hangs over them. Mbappe for example has criticized Le Graet for ignoring complaints about the racial abuse he suffered last year.

The 23-year-old forward also slammed an image rights deal that forced France national team players to endorse certain brands, including fast-food outlets and bookmakers. In June, the FFF announced that it would revise the agreement. By September that wasn’t the case, so Mbappe announced he was boycotting a photoshoot ahead of the World Cup. Other senior players supported the boycott. It led to an urgent meeting between some of them, Deschamps and Le Graet, and another promise from the FFF – at the start of what was to be their most important week of World Cup preparation on the field.

Countless members of the French football community have called for Le Graet’s resignation. He has refused and continues to monitor an endless stream of distractions.

L’Affaire Pogba

It seems like forever ago now that the biggest distraction was L’Affaire Pogba, the unfathomably chaotic blackmail case involving the magical midfielder and his brother. The case exploded in public late last month when Mathias Pogba, Paul’s older brother, appeared in a bizarre video promising “major revelations” about Paul, Paul’s rep and Mbappé.

Reportedly forthcoming revelations included that Paul Pogba had asked a marabout – a Muslim saint or hermit – from his entourage to cast a “spell” on Mbappé. The media grabbed this and portrayed it as a potential bombshell that could irreparably shatter the relationship between the two French stars just months before the World Cup.

In reality, according to Paul and French authorities, it was nonsense – and it deflected real concerns that Pogba, who dazzled at the 2018 World Cup, has allegedly been threatened and armedly blackmailed since March. He’s living with the trauma that’s involved and under police protection as the World Cup draws near. His brother and four other former friends have been arrested, but concerns remain.

They tarnished France’s World Cup preparation, which, as you recall, was the opposite of smooth on the field. The team almost finished last in a UEFA Nations League group with Austria, Denmark and Croatia.

France remains a favorite for the 2022 World Cup (+550) simply because of their ancestry and talent. But everything that surrounds this talent turns into pessimism and chaos.





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