France’s Premier League contingent made a solid enough start to Euro 2016, with Olivier Giroud, N’Golo Kanté and Hugo Lloris making notable contributions to the win over Romania and Dimitri Payet emerging as the opening-night hero, though whether the hosts fully justified their billing as pre-tournament favourites was a lot less clear.
Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, two of the players expected to be pivotal to French hopes, were substituted before Payet’s winner, when the overall feeling was that Didier Deschamps’s men were enduring a frustrating evening. Neither was particularly awful, though Griezmann was ineffective when he could have been incisive and Pogba looked good in short bursts without exerting the midfield control that had been expected.
There is little doubt Payet’s glorious strike changed the mood of the evening and possibly the whole French campaign. Had the game ended in a tame 1-1 draw the recriminations might already have started, the Karim Benzema issue would have returned and Deschamps would have found himself making excuses to a sceptical public, but the great thing about tournaments is their unpredictability. Once they start, they quickly develop a life of their own.
France might have left it late but in the end, one minute from the end to be exact, they achieved lift-off. The absence of a driving midfielder and the unresolved shakiness of the defence are now less pressing problems, and France can go into Wednesday’s game against Albania with a groundswell of confidence.
“It was a tricky match, made complicated by Romania,” Deschamps said, making an early bid for daft quote of the tournament. It would have been a whole lot more complicated had Bogdan Stancu put away either of his clear chances at the start of each half, though one sort of knew what Deschamps meant. One way or another the hosts were under a great deal of pressure, playing at home, staging a tournament under a security alert, attempting to live up to their status among the favourites, while their opponents could afford to be relatively carefree.
Opening games are notoriously tricky for the side hosting the tournament. Weeks if not months of hype and expectation are suddenly expected to condense into a dynamic performance, nerves and errors of judgment inevitably play a part, and the result is often deflating or frustrating.
Boos rang around Wembley at the end of England’s opening encounter with Uruguay in the 1966 World Cup, the crowd allegedly unfamiliar and unhappy with the South American concept of parking the bus to obtain a scoreless draw. It was the first time England had failed to score at Wembley in 20 years.
They recovered, obviously, though the sense of disappointment around the country that something so eagerly anticipated could deliver a spectacle so sterile and boring was palpable. If England had not hung in until they started to win matches, if the home side had made a mid-tournament exit as they have done so many times since, the event as a whole could easily have been dismissed as uninteresting by the television audience at large.
West Ham United were widely credited with winning that World Cup for England, and though that scandalously ignores the goals by Bobby Charlton and Roger Hunt that got them out of the group and into the final, it would be amusing should Payet turn out to be Upton Park’s final gift to the international game.
For a player who confessed he thought he had no chance of making the France squad at the start of the season, Payet was certainly impressive against Romania. He was the best French player by a distance even before he scored the winning goal, supplying the cross for Giroud’s opener as well as the one that set up Pogba for his volley.
Payet is not like Kanté or Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez, unheralded in French football before a successful season in England. He was consistently good for Saint-Étienne, Lille and Marseille before moving to England and was first called up for France by Laurent Blanc. Deschamps called him up, too, but seemed to have difficulty finding him a role. He found himself on the periphery of the squad, then was dropped altogether and only returned to international duty in March, when he played well enough against Holland to keep his spot.
A trademark free-kick goal against Cameroon in May finally convinced Deschamps he was worth a place at in Euro 2016. The timing could scarcely be bettered, though less than a year ago Payet was being overlooked and was fretting about it. “I am struggling to understand what he is really asking of me,” he said of the coach at one point.
He will not be struggling quite so much now. Deschamps rightly describes him as a player who can make a difference, while Payet’s teary reaction to his match-winning performance against Romania told its own story. “There was a lot of stress and a lot of pressure, and all the emotion came out with that goal,” the player said.
For the next few weeks, Deschamps and the rest of France will be asking for more of the same. More crosses to bring out the best from Giroud, more through balls to split opposition defences and perhaps the odd unstoppable free-kick. It is all in Payet’s repertoire, as West Ham fans know. He might not be better than Zinedine Zidane, as the terrace ditty has it, but he has just upstaged a few of his contemporaries. France are up and running.
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