The Defending World Cup Champs Are Still Absolutely Loaded
3:44 PM EST on November 7, 2022
It’s almost time for the 2022 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our World Cup previews here.
France won the 2018 World Cup in Russia. What's possibly more remarkable than that is that they didn't win Euro 2020, dying in the round of 16 when Switzerland defeated them in a penalty shootout. Possibly deliciously, depending on whether you are a France fan or not, the lone miss by either team in the shootout was by Kylian Mbappé, France's main guy.
This team is absurdly stacked. The knockout stage of this season's Champions League is absolutely jammed with France internationals. Young ones, too! Friggin' 23-year-olds who've barely begun to realize the full extent of their abilities. Even with a recent rash of injuries France's likely squad for Qatar will include more world-class talent than all of Group E. More Champions League-grade players will be left off of France's World Cup squad due to injury or middling form than will suit up for the United States. Frankly, it's not fair. For justice, I am simply forced to demand that William Saliba and Christopher Nkunku be made Spanish, immediately.
With all of that glittering talent, France can play pretty much any way it wants to. In the semifinals in 2018, Les Bleus deployed an ultra-conservative low block against an electrifying and super-aggressive Belgium, wagering correctly that they had the juice to maximize a small number of chances; it worked, and also was such a disgraceful misuse of France's loaded arsenal that some of the defeated Belgians complained about it. Ultimately, France's ideal setup against strong opposition probably looks a bit like Real Madrid's (and not just because their squad likely will feature some key Real Madrid guys): Press opportunistically but selectively, mostly absorb the other side's possession, then explode forward on the counter and get the ball to the sexy attacking guys so they can do maximum cool shit with it.
Who Is Their Main Guy?
France's main guy is Kylian Mbappé.
Allow me a digression. My two kids are growing into soccer fandom. Because they play a lot of video games, where playable characters get sorted into classes typically oriented around some defining ability and balancing weakness—this guy is powerful but slow, that guy can't do a lot of damage but he can revive fallen compatriots, etc.—their expectation is that soccer stars also work this way.
So they will ask me, for example, "What is Leo Messi good at?" and I can tell that my best attempt at giving them an answer that both does justice to Messi's greatness and also enlarges my kids' understanding of soccer is slightly annoying to them. Soccer is less suited than any other sport to summing up its great players as agglomerations of discrete skills and abilities, strengths and weaknesses: Sure, yes, Leo Messi is good at, like, dribbling, and shooting, and passing, but there are plenty of players who are good at dribbling and shooting, who in training could probably knock a baseball off a tee with the ball from 30 yards away without upsetting the tee, but who are not halfway fit to wash Messi's socks. Messi is incredibly good at very many of the discrete skills and actions of a soccer player but also and much more importantly he is world-historically good at playing soccer, which is the alchemy or magic of knitting all those skills and actions together with those of a bunch of other players, of seeing the game and moving within it and then also at times simply making it do what you want it to do. That's very purple, but it's true, and then my kids are still like, "OK, but is he good at rabonas?" I mean, he's probably fine at rabonas. That's not the point.
Most great soccer players are like this, and Mbappé is no exception. He is extremely good at damn near everything anyone would want an attacking soccer player to be good at, and he is great at applying that stuff to the protean shapes and rhythms of a soccer game. He is great at playing soccer. It would be reductive and demeaning to sum him up as anything less than that. But also, man, he is really fucking fast.
Mbappé exploded into the global consciousness with his performance at the 2018 World Cup, when the then-19-year-old became the first teenager since Pelé to score two goals in a World Cup match, and then also the first teenager since Pelé to score a goal in a Final, with this audacious strike against Croatia:
More generally, Mbappé spent that tournament looking like Mario amid a bunch of Goombas and the occasional Koopa Troopa, or like Sonic against whatever the slow enemies were in those games. Speed is a great star-making attribute, instantly legible and cool to just about anyone: The afternoon-buzzed non-fan watching on TV at the bar because the World Cup gave them a pretext for partying and yelling needn't know anything at all about the deeper tactical value of Mbappé's racehorse speed to get an electric thrill out of Man Run Incredibly Fast, and for the name and face of the man to be imprinted on their brain. Accordingly, four years later, Mbappé's clearly one of the very biggest stars in the world—if still not the best player on his own damn club team.
Mbappé's abundantly reported preference is to play out wide on the left, where he can attack defenders in space, do cool winger shit, and cut inside onto his terrifying and deadly right foot. At Paris Saint-Germain, with the superior Neymar in form, that's not available to him. Nor can he play on the right, as he did a couple times in the 2018 World Cup: Messi, in terrifying form, patrols over there. Mbappé's had to play in the middle, where he's still great and pours in the goals but in a more limiting role that doesn't allow him to do the cool winger shit. He has been famously grumpy about it.
He's had no such problems playing for France. The national team has no one who reasonably can demand the left wing over Mbappé, but more importantly it has had, and has, real No. 9 guys. In 2018 Les Bleus had old man Olivier Giroud; in 2022 they have Real Madrid's mega-striker Karim Benzema, the newly minted Ballon D'Or winner, recently returned to international soccer after a multi-year absence that we will discuss in just a moment.
Who Is Their Main Guy Who ... Will Also Score Goals?
That'd be Benzema.
If the 34-year-old Benzema is not the best striker in the world, then the gap between him and whoever you want to tap for that honor is small enough to be functionally invisible. A prodigious scorer of goals in just about every way that goals can be scored and with every body part allowed by the rules to score them, Benzema is also, when called upon for it, a fantastic facilitator who can drop a bit deeper toward midfield to play through-balls ahead for his wingers; only England's Harry Kane is his equal in this area among true No. 9s. Also he's a damn wizard with nifty one-touch stuff around the box. Also, with the ball at his feet, he is fairly Sick With It and can make markers look like dumbasses. On top of that he is a friggin' yak who can simply move dudes around to get to spots and put himself on the end of passes. On the pitch at least, Benzema is a very nearly flawless soccer player.
I have trouble imagining any possible better pairing for Mbappé: Benzema exerts neutron-star gravity on the middle of any opposing defense, and has shown through his partnership with Vinícius at Real Madrid that he is a great pairing for a goal-scoring inverted winger on the left who likes to do cool winger shit with the ball. To me it is very funny to recall that this could have been Mbappé's day-to-day situation, had he taken his dream club's money over the summer instead of returning to PSG, where the best-case scenario for the team pretty much by definition would involve him not getting to occupy his preferred area of the pitch. It is also pretty funny to me that, as a respite from the discontent and pecking-order tension in Paris, Mbappé now gets to be, once again, arguably not more than the second-best player on a team.
(None of that changes whether Mbappé is France's main guy. He is! For that matter, with Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo aging and on their last hurrahs through the sport's most visible global event, a lot of institutional soccer's branding partners and honchos would probably like to come away from Qatar with the sport secure in the light of a fresh supernova, and the 23-year-old Mbappé is by far the likeliest candidate for the position. That might also make him FIFA's main guy.)
Where’s The Beef?
Which teams or players does France not like? Do France’s players like each other? We investigate France’s potential enemies.
The full detailed story behind Benzema's five-year national-team absence is beyond the scope of this World Cup preview blog; in brief, French police arrested Benzema in November of 2015 in connection with a scheme to blackmail fellow French international Mathieu Valbuena over an alleged mobile-phone sex tape. The French Football Federation (FFF) suspended Benzema provisionally that December, and then just sorta never lifted the suspension. Last November, a French court convicted Benzema for his part in the conspiracy (he awaits sentencing); I guess the FFF decided he'd paid his dues.
Participating in the blackmail of your colleague over a sex tape is deeply gross, fucked-up behavior! That Benzema was then, as he is now, a wealthy famous guy whose participation in the scheme could not be explained even one tiny little bit away by any desperate need for money only makes it grosser. I have no idea how his present-day Les Bleus mates feel about Benzema, nor any particular reason to think they are holding this against him. Nor am I aware of anybody on any other World Cup squad who will be especially tuned to kicking the ass of the Teammate Blackmailer. But there are lots of soccer fans out there who root automatically and vociferously against Benzema, on account of him being a guy who participated in blackmailing a colleague over a sex tape, which, again, is deeply gross, fucked-up behavior.
Which is to say that the beef, in this case, is between Karim Benzema and the soccer fans who loathe him and would hate to watch him conquer the World Cup. That he is playing for the reigning and absurdly loaded Cup champions likely cements it: For plenty of fans, France's striker is one of this World Cup's main villains. Though leading the World Cup in evil is still, uh, the hosting nation.
Oh right, also, France and England don't like each other. Like just in general!
Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode
Who is France's best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia’s James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia’s David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?
A nice problem for a national soccer team is having more cool and good attacking players than it can fit into a normal soccer formation. Barring last-minute injuries, France likely will come to Qatar with somewhere between four and six attacking guys on the roster who would start in, for example, Spain's front three. At least three of them, by my count, would or should instantly displace that team's very sad best striker option. That is a good type of roster awkwardness for France to have! But also it means that at any given time some of these guys will be cooling on the bench, hoping to get some burn.
RB Leipzig's young Christopher Nkunku may not be a first-choice selection for France, at least not initially—again, it's very crowded up front—but watch out when he gets in. Luis already went long on the 24-year-old, and I won't presume to cover the same ground here. Nkunku is a star.
Big clubs already are sniffing around; that Nkunku will make his way to one of them before long is a virtual certainty. A big showing for France in the World Cup can only change the scale of his eventual come-up, particularly if his performance crystallizes the image of him as a nine-and-a-half type plus midfielder skills, rather than as a midfielder who can also do some goals. (Not that there's anything wrong with the latter! It's just, true goal-scorers are sexier.) I can imagine, like, Newcastle splashing the pot and turning the whole thing crazy. I kind of hope that happens.
I regard Nkunku as a fairly sure thing. He is simply good as hell, and hopefully Erling Haaland eating the Premier League alive has served to dispel anybody's doubts about Bundesliga dominance porting over to England.
David Ospina Mode Probability Score: 3.4
James Rodriguez Mode Probability Score: 87.6
Fun Geographical Fact
France and Italy have been bickering for like 600 years over which of the two owns the precise summit of Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps and in Western Europe as a whole.
In that sense, this being a fun geographical fact about France is debatable! Maybe it is a fun geographical fact about Monte Bianco in Italy. Maybe it is a dumb fact about assholes fighting over a legal fiction. Maybe both of them should fuck off and let the big lovely mountain melt in peace.
Good Flag Or Bad Flag?
The French flag is good-looking and characteristically stylish. Red, white, and blue are a very pretty combination, particularly with the white in the middle; the stripes are shapely and nice. The cool thing about the flag of France is that, as the flag adopted by the French Republic after the Revolution, it does not include any of the coats of arms or fleurs-de-lis typically associated with the flags of monarchies. It is not the flag of a hereditary empire, but of a pluralist nation, and inspired the flags of a lot of other young republics. That's nice.
Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?
The national anthem of France is La Marseillaise, chosen because it was a rallying song of the French Revolution. The opening melody is instantly recognizable across the world, if the song on the whole is maybe a touch too martial for my tastes. On the other hand, La Marseillaise features in one of the greatest scenes in film history.
Fuck, man. I would follow Victor Lazslo into hell right now. Right now! Like it was nothing!
Notable Moment In World Cup History
I mean, they literally won the 2018 World Cup. That was the most recent World Cup. I thought we covered this already.
How Can They Win The World Cup?
France can with the 2022 World Cup by simply winning the 2022 World Cup.
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