A symbol of these complex times, which shadow the buildup towards Euro 2016, took the form of a special visitor to Clairefontaine, as the French national team gathered to continue their preparations for a tournament on home soil.
Ordinarily Salim Toorabally, an unassuming 42-year-old Mauritian immigrant from the Paris suburb of Le Blanc-Mesnil, would have no reason to visit the chateau that is the home to Les Bleus. But he did something extraordinary that resonates with every French footballer.
He is the security guard who foiled the bomber intent on detonating an explosive vest inside the Stade de France during a match against Germany as part of the 13 November terrorist attacks. Last week the French newspaper L’Equipe arranged for Toorabally to be welcomed to Clairefontaine, where he met the France midfielder Blaise Matuidi, allowing the pair to share their recollections of events that night.
“Forty minutes before the kick-off someone tried to nip in behind another spectator. I stopped and asked him to show me his ticket,” Toorabally said. The bomber tried to blag his way through by mentioning the person who had his ticket hadn’t turned up and insisted he go in. “I told him that it doesn’t work like that,” Toorabally added. He kept his eye on the bomber, who hung around looking agitated before trying his luck at another turnstile. Toorabally rushed over to warn a fellow security guard and the bomber backed off, later to set off his explosives outside the stadium while the match was going on. One bystander was killed.
There was a crowd of 79,000 at the game as a horrifying night in Paris unfolded. That it was not more tragic at the capital’s sporting centrepiece is thanks to Toorabally’s intervention. Matuidi congratulated him for his composure, saying: “You are more than a hero.”
On Tuesday night the team return to the Stade de France for the first time since the Paris atrocities, which killed 130 and left hundreds injured, including the loss of Lassana Diarra’s cousin. Pitching everything right for this friendly against Russia is far from easy. Somehow Les Bleus need to reconcile their own emotions about what happened, honour those who were affected and approach the game with the maximum level of focus for a team hoping to be strong in a tournament which they will kick off in this arena on 10 June. Perhaps the best thing to take from their friendly in Holland last Friday was a general mood that the team emitted on the pitch – an admirable mixture of concentration and positivity.
The overriding sense that comes from their coach, Didier Deschamps, is that it is best to try to maintain a sense of professionalism. “No one can forget what happened but speaking about it or not doesn’t change anything,” he says. “We lived very emotional moments, all together. Now we must move forward. All safety measures will be taken.” Following last week’s attacks in Brussels heightened anxiety is understandable. Debates about the viability of the tournament, including polemics about the possibility of playing behind closed doors or shutting down fan parks, are unavoidable. But the message from the camp is for the French team to do their utmost to stay clear-headed.
Few managers can have had to deal with as much trauma around a squad building up to a major finals. It certainly alters perspective on what was, until last November, the big issue of Karim Benzema’s participation. In the middle of April the decision will be made on his future. The Real Madrid striker is serving an indefinite suspension after being charged with conspiracy to blackmail in a case of attempted extortion of his international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena. It will be helpful once the Benzema decision is final to be able to move on either with or without him next month.
Somehow, with so much going on in the background, Deschamps must select a team to attempt to do what he did as a player – win a trophy for France at a home tournament. He is blessed with some fantastic talent. In an exciting opening to their friendly in Holland they played with a scintillating style that puts them among the favourites to win the Euros. A 3-2 win showcased their attacking vibrancy - but also highlighted defensive concerns when they switched off in the second half.
Deschamps has some intriguing decisions to make about his best attacking lineup. In the absence of Benzema Olivier Giroud scored and generally linked up well. The latter job is a crucial part of how this France team functions, with the class of Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and Anthony Martial all encouraged to maraud from deeper positions. Griezmann’s energy and desire to make an impact on matches is a standout feature of this France team. Payet carried his West Ham form into his recall to the national team, which bodes well for his chances to make the squad. “He is in great shape,” confirmed Deschamps.
Martial is not the only youngster pushing to make his mark on the team. Kingsley Coman, the 19-year-old at Bayern Munich, should get some playing time against Russia. Lyon’s Nabil Fekir is back from injury and highly regarded, and even though it would be a bold choice given the fact he has not made a squad yet, the hottest young property in French football currently, Ousmane Dembélé of Rennes, might still tempt Deschamps that a rough diamond can be a wonderful tournament surprise.
France are not short of high calibre variation in midfield either, with Paul Pogba and Matuidi established and one other spot up for grabs with an impressive array of players competing to start. N’Golo Kanté made his debut in Holland after his wondrous season for Leicester and Diarra, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko are strong alternatives. Manchester United’s Morgan Schneiderlin did not even make this squad although Deschamps pointed out the door is far from closed.
These are nice headaches to have and, frankly, after the last few months, a nice pure footballing one is almost a welcome relief.
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