Patrice Evra: how France have united behind unlikely father figure

France's Patrice Evra before the game

They were still hollering La Marseillaise in the crammed streets around the Stade Vélodrome, the boulevards awash with tricolours and the mood celebratory, as Didier Deschamps ushered his victors through the massed ranks of media and out into the night.

Those who had stopped to offer their thoughts had spoken of the excellence of Antoine Griezmann, of making history against the world champions and the need to focus on the challenge ahead. Portugal will be no pushovers. Yet the same theme kept cropping up: a squad united; a team spirit that will not be shaken; a collective that, in Laurent Koscielny’s words, remains unis, solide.

In some ways, it all felt distinctly un-French. For all that the chance to host these finals has conjured giddy memories of Michel Platini inspiring success back in 1984, or Zinedine Zidane and the spirit of black, blanc, beur (blacks, whites and Arabs) as the World Cup was claimed 14 years later, the national team have too often been associated with anarchy and infighting in recent times. It had blighted them in South Korea and Switzerland, and had even threatened to derail them here over Karim Benzema, Mathieu Valbuena and accusations of blackmail over a sex-tape, a scandal almost too outlandish to comprehend.

Most troublingly, of course, was the open revolt in South Africa in 2010 stemming from Raymond Domenech’s exclusion of Nicolas Anelka, which prompted Patrice Evra to lead his team-mates on a one-day strike against the management. The defender would be stripped of the captaincy and banned at a disciplinary hearing after that tournament with many, from Lilian Thuram to government ministers, suggesting he should never play for his country again.

Yet, while France spasms at the hands of industrial action on almost a weekly basis, no one has come to personify the new-found sense of unity within Deschamps’ squad better than Evra. He is the senior professional who delivers the tub-thumping rallying cry in the huddle as the fitness coaches oversee the pre-match stretches, and conducts team-mates and supporters through the post-match celebrations. He has fronted up to the media after those sluggish early displays in the group and warned all of the need to “wake up” or risk being cast from the festival. His manager has encouraged him to accept such responsibility.

The 35-year-old has even taken Paul Pogba, the youngster to whom the country had pinned such weighty expectations, under his wing in an attempt to deflect the focus. France has delighted in the footage of the Juventus pair dancing back at the team’s Clairefontaine base, or even interviewing each other – in Italian – for the cameras after the victory over Germany. The full-back, once dubbed “the dinosaur” by a new generation of defenders queueing up to claim his place, has become a father figure. He has never been more integral.

“We have made this group into a family,” he said. “The breakthrough moment probably came for us in that play-off win over Ukraine [in November 2013 when they overcame a 2-0 first-leg deficit to triumph 3-2 and qualify for the World Cup] because, after that, we had a good tournament in Brazil. That gave us a platform, a chance to progress.

“Now, though, we must become a nation of winners once again and the only way to do that is to end this tournament with the trophy. I have never won anything with the France team and it would feel like a failure for me, a blot on my career, if it stayed like that. But we have a chance now. I am proud of all my team-mates. They’re doing their utmost to try to make me cry by winning the European Championship.”

This may be his last chance to break that duck though the French, once so keen to rid themselves of a man perceived to be divisive and political, will be diminished without him. The rearguard action in Marseille, when Germany were in the ascendancy and Dimitri Payet was offering Evra next to no protection down the left flank, had tested that backline, but the hosts had stood firm. Hugo Lloris was outstanding. Bacary Sagna has been quietly impressive all tournament, Koscielny too, and a gem has been unearthed in Samuel Umtiti. Retreat a little over a week and the centre-half had been an uncapped Lyon player included in Deschamps’ squad only because of Raphaël Varane’s injury and Mamadou Sakho’s suspension. Now Umtiti is a £24.6m Barcelona defender – the paperwork will officially be signed off after the tournament – who has helped shut out the World Cup holders, and who will earn his third cap confronting Cristiano Ronaldo in the final of Euro 2016. “I’m still pinching myself over everything that’s happened in the last few days, but I won’t let it go to my head,” he said. “I try not to get carried away. I live from day to day because, honestly, I never thought I’d be involved in something like this. It has been an amazing month, a sacred July.”

“But we knew we wouldn’t have the ball on Thursday, and we were prepared for that,” he said. “We had to be tight defensively and give everything we had. But when you see your wingers and midfielders putting in the effort they were, you want to go into battle with them.”

That summed up the spirit. This squad has never been tighter, their bond strengthened with a nation in need of a dose of positivity after the terrorist atrocities of last November and months of social unrest whipped up by reforms to labour laws. Les Bleus have won their past 10 games against Portugal. Extend that record to 11 and France, revived by their football team, will rejoice as one.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dominic Fifield in Marseille, for The Guardian on Friday 8th July 2016 15.05 Europe/London

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