In France’s moment of tragedy, when the national team were caught up in the Paris atrocities last November, Didier Deschamps spoke of the power of sport to unite, to send out positive messages.
Back at their home stadium to play for the first time at the Stade de France since those harrowing events, the players and crowd came together to do exactly that.
Les Bleus cherished an evening of outstanding, liberating, beautiful attacking football. Just to feel happy again in that environment was meaningful in itself, but the added significance came with the pure sporting message. This France team possess an abundance of talent, and the desire for the players to showcase it beat loud and clear as Russia, straining to withstand a masterclass of forward play, were beaten 4-2.
This international break was billed as an audition for some of the France squad hoping to make an impression ahead of Euro 2016 this summer. Four of them – N’Golo Kanté, André-Pierre Gignac, Dmitri Payet and Kingsley Coman – responded by scoring.
For two of them the celebrations were particularly special. What are the chances of two players in the squad treasuring a birthday goal in the same game? Step forward Kanté and Payet, who merited the presentation of a spectacular cake post-match. Presumably the real present will be a squad place for the tournament. Both of these eye-catching Premier League performers have surely done enough over this international get-together to confirm a place in Deschamps’ 23.
“Obviously there were a lot of positives,” Deschamps said, before he felt compelled to pull a steady-on face when he was excitably asked if this talented group of attackers was the best France has had for years. “We did some good things but we were not perfect.”
Deschamps, though, has a bewitching array of highly skilled forward-minded players to choose from. The squad is not perfect – defensively they have a weakness from set pieces and there is still some indecision about the best unit to stand guard in front of Hugo Lloris.
An undistinguished Russian team still managed to score twice. Mamadou Sakho found the going tough alongside the assured Raphaël Varane. The feeling persists, though, that if France can tweak their defensive game, they are blessed with potential further up the pitch.
The French supporters roared their approval of a team in whom they believe. The game took place in an atmosphere that was reassuringly warm and upbeat given the security concerns that have shadowed the hosting of the Euro 2016 since the Paris attacks. It was as if the collective on the night – that encompasses the squad, the supporters and the security personnel – made a palpable effort to reignite some feelgood factor.
Outside the stadium there was an extra ring of steel, 1,000 police and special forces on duty, and snipers strategically positioned. The necessary checks were done professionally and positively. The crowd came in good spirits to watch the show go on. Music blared, flags twirled, and a giant banner was unfurled which read: “2016, all united towards one objective: the title.” After a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise, and a sobering minute’s silence for the victims of the more recent attacks in Brussels, the players and the fans were able to turn their attention to the pitch. Everybody did so with a obvious will to look forwards.
Lloris, the France captain, had outlined how crucial it was to create some new feelings in their home stadium, a necessary stepping stone between what they experienced last November and the start of Euro 2016 on 10 June. “It’s important to return to the Stade de France to find our point of reference and confidence,” he said.
Within eight minutes that started happening. Kanté, the Leicester City midfielder whose upward trajectory this season shows little sign of a plateau, appeared high up the field and with effortless assurance picked his spot to plant the ball past Igor Akinfeev. A latecomer to the international scene, he is timing one of those indefatigable runs so smartly his case for inclusion in this squad is overwhelming. He was absolutely comfortable in a powerful midfield alongside Paul Pogba and Lassana Diarra. It is perhaps not a coincidence that among the players to start both friendlies in this international break – France defeated Holland 3-2 last Friday – Antoine Griezmann, the attacker who plays with such a quick mind and clever timing, was one of the mainstays. Seeing how others combined with him will inform the decision‑making before the final squad selection on 12 May.
By then there will be some clarity about Karim Benzema’s position, and the availability – or not – of the Real Madrid striker implicated in an extortion scandal is bound to have an effect on Deschamps’s choices. Gignac, the cult figure who earned his recall with his exploits in the Mexican league, led the line like an excitable puppy to the delight of the crowd. He pounced on a set piece from Griezmann to score a goal of his own to cherish.
Coman, the youngster making waves with Bayern Munich, came on for an electric cameo in the second half. When he turned on his afterburners and ran powerfully at the Russians he added a startling energy. When one of his full-speed dashes was interrupted by a foul, Payet stepped up to score a sublime free-kick. Coman topped off his contribution with a wonder goal, curled in from an improbable angle with a relaxed flourish.
In a little over 10 weeks France will be back here taking centre stage with the opening match of the European Championship against Romania. This French team going forwards is something everybody desperately wants to be a part of.
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