A decade after losing the World Cup final to Italy, France face another final of a big tournament, against Portugal in Paris. For followers of the national team, 10 years can feel both a long and short time. It feels long because between 2006 and 2016, French football went through a turbulent period with crisis following an abject 2010 World Cup before this redemption.
But it also feels short. Back in 2006, it was the end of the Zinedine Zidane generation and many fans thought it would take another 25 years to get the next big star, the one capable of bringing another trophy to the country like Michel Platini did at Euro ’84 and Zidane did with World Cup glory in 1998 and then another tournament success at Euro 2000.
If France beat Portugal in the Euro 2016 final, it will be the success of the Antoine Griezmann generation. After a great season with his club, the Atletico Madrid striker is on another planet at the moment. He has scored six goals in six games in the tournament. Apart from Platini, who netted nine times back in 1984, no-one has ever scored as many as Griezmann in the history of the European Championship.
Although “Grizou” won’t be thinking about it, the Ballon d’Or is also at stake in this final. If the Frenchman succeeds, he will have a huge chance to win the prestigious trophy of best player in European football. If Cristiano Ronaldo delivers and brings a first ever trophy to Portugal, he is certain to get another Ballon d’Or. Paris pits “CR7” against “GR7.”
The mood is great in the French camp. The 2-0 victory against Germany in the semifinals has given lifted the confidence of Didier Deschamps and his players. They were dominated for most of the first half but they kept working hard, stayed strong together and took advantage of the Germans’ mistakes.
After the match in the Stade Velodrome dressing room, Deschamps told his players he was proud of them but there was one more game to be played and a final to be won. As the saying goes: “You don’t play a final, you win it.”
Deschamps is a specialist in winning and his players want to emulate him. Without being overconfident, Les Bleus are convinced they will beat the Portuguese like previous France teams did in the 1984, 2000 and 2006 semifinals. Each game was dramatic, 1984 with France coming back to win in extra time in Marseille (3-2), 2000 with Abel Xavier’s handball and Zidane’s golden goal penalty (2-1) and another Zidane penalty in 2006 (1-0).
France have also won their last 10 encounters against Portugal, which psychologically will be a big advantage. On Saturday evening, when the French squad left Clairefontaine, hundreds of fans were waiting to cheer them on at the side of the road and all the way until their hotel in the centre of Paris.
According to sources inside the camp, the players are relaxed. They don’t feel the pressure so much — just like before the Germany game. They are aware of the importance of the occasion, obviously, but they have been very strong mentally throughout the tournament.
They had one objective at the start — to win — and they are almost there. They learned a lot from the two first games, against Romania (2-1) and Albania (2-0), where expectation and pressure got to them. At the same time, Deschamps has found a winning formula, a 4-4-2 formation with Griezmann and Giroud up front.
The head coach is usually conservative, hence the use of the 4-3-3 for most of his time with the national team. However, he is also pragmatic. Considering Griezmann’s form, Deschamps decided to adapt his system around the Atletico man and not the other way round. So, 4-4-2 is here and for the third game running, France’s starting XI will be unchanged.
It means Samuel Umtiti could win the European Championship in only his third appearance for his country. After facing Thomas Muller in the semifinal and keeping him quiet, Umtiti will now hope to nullify Ronaldo. The Barcelona-bound defender is not scared, though. At only 22, his maturity is impressive. Three years ago, he won the Under-20 World Cup along with Paul Pogba.
On Sunday night, they could become kings of Europe. The whole country has faith in them and has fallen in love with this very likeable French squad.
If Deschamps’ men prevail, the celebrations will be very special all around France, but none more so than in Paris. Indeed, this final is much more than just a football match. Les Bleus can win the Euros for their country but also for all the people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks of 2015 in the capital.
A nation expects.