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Storm clouds gather again over France

Not for the first time, France's national football squad is going into a major tournament facing internal strife

Les Bleus head coach Didier Deschamps celebrates his side’s 2018 World Cup victory. Photo: Matthew Ashton/AMA

Hell hath no fury like a football brother, spouse, girlfriend or teammate scorned. The World Cup is three months away but France, with the talent to go all the way again, are once again facing internal strife.

Last week, Karim Benzema was justifiably named Uefa’s player of the year after leading Real Madrid to the Champions League title. Yet at the last World Cup, Benzema was an outcast, accused of conspiring with a gang to blackmail a teammate, Mathieu Valbuena, over a sex video downloaded on a mobile phone.

He’d already accused coach Didier Deschamps of pandering to racists by not naming him in his 2016 Euros squad. The French prime minister of the day, Manuel Valls, pronounced that “a great sportsman should be exemplary. If not, he has no place in the France team.”

It took six years, but Benzema was convicted on the conspiracy charge last November. He received a one-year suspended jail term and was fined €75,000 (£63,000). Yet Deschamps recalled him to the national side for last year’s Euros and his form has remained so red hot that barring another blow-up, an injury or serious loss of form (unlikely, given his two goals in
added time against Espanyol on Sunday) Benzema should line up alongside Kylian Mbappé for Les Bleus in Qatar.

That is if Mbappé makes it. He is among the players threatened by an extraordinary statement this week by Mathias Pogba, the elder and
demonstrably less gifted brother of Paul Pogba, who left Manchester
United this summer to return to Juventus.

What the senior sibling is promising to reveal is so far oblique, but he says it will include “very important things” about Mbappé, questions of “integrity” regarding Paul’s agent Rafaela Pimenta and “explosive” revelations about the
World Cup-winning midfielder himself. “I believe the French, Italian and English public, my brother’s fans, and even more – the French national team, the Juventus team, my brother’s teammates, and his sponsors, deserve to know certain things in order to make an informed decision whether he deserves the admiration and respect and love of the public,” he wrote.

When Paul’s lawyers, mother and agent responded in a joint statement that Mathias’ behaviour was “unfortunately not a surprise” and came “after threats and attempts of extortion by an organised gang against Paul Pogba”, the elder brother replied: “People will see that there is no more coward, more traitor and more hypocrite than you on this earth.”

It is an unexpected drama that France does not need. Deschamps is as pragmatic as any man in extracting every ounce a player can give, or removing him, is counting on Pogba and Mbappé to reproduce the form that led to glory in Russia four years ago. A coach who has given caps to Benjamin Mendy, the Manchester City full back currently facing eight counts of rape, and to Kurt Zouma, the West Ham centre-back filmed – again by a brother – kicking the family cat earlier this year, needs no further scandals and grim distractions.

But if there is a distressed thin blue line between talent and tolerance with Les Bleus, there is also extraordinary diversity and a deep, deep talent pool. Deschamps is a Basque, born in Bayonne in the south-west of the country. His employer, the 80-year-old French Football Federation president, Noël
Le Graët, is a Breton from the north-west.

Disparate types, but both obdurate men thrown together in the aftermath of the mutiny of 2010 when France exited South Africa in disgrace.

Nicolas Anelka caused the fracas by insulting the mild-mannered coach Raymond Domenech and his team-mates then refused to take part in a training session before losing their final group game and being eliminated. Politicians waded in, racism was blamed and France needed a reset the like of which is unprecedented in football history.

Yet the country’s talent streams overflow. Where in the world is there a midfielder more combative or more bright or more durable than N’Golo Kanté? Some in France say Adrien Rabiot has the talent to replace him, but maybe Deschamps shares the doubts about Rabiot’s trustworthiness, just as Paris St Germain did, as Juventus now appear to be, and ultimately as Manchester United found when breaking off negotiations to buy him.

It takes a lot to earn the trust of Deschamps, but his eyes and ears are open everywhere. Two players on the periphery of his vision must be Aurélien Tchouaméni, who Real Madrid bought to replace Casemiro, and the so far uncapped (at senior level) Newcastle United winger Allan Saint-Maximin.

The origins of Saint-Maximin have a familiar ring. His father was born in Guadeloupe, like Thierry Henry’s father. Both were raised in the Paris suburbs. Both have fast feet. Both needed a certain coach to make them believe what they are capable of, and while Arsène Wenger breathed belief
into Henry, something is stirring right now in Newcastle under the English coach Eddie Howe.

What we can depend upon is that Deschamps will be watching, ready to change on instinct and intervention if a fresh talent ripens.

What came together in the final weeks of the 2018 World Cup might just as well repeat itself, albeit in a very different climate in Qatar.

It is in the genes of the multinational French just as much as the country that supplies most talent to our European leagues. Actually, somewhat less because according to the Swiss-based CIES Football Observatory, Brazil is the most numerous exporter of football talent (1,202 players), ahead of France (781) and Argentina (753).

Most of those players follow the money, and unlike France, Brazil has
won World Cups on more than one continent – in Sweden, Chile, Mexico, USA and South Korea/Japan. France has some of the inheritance to withstand the heat and humidity in Qatar, Brazil may have more.

But it is a long time, 20 years, since Brazil triumphed in Yokohama. The
French actually have players who can remember how it is done.

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