When Robbie Brady’s late winner against Italy secured Ireland a second round match against hosts France, the football world’s collective mind was inevitably cast back to a previous match-up between the teams and that infamous Thierry Henry incident… and who can forget his fantastic winner in 2005?
Oh – you weren’t thinking of that one? OK, of course all the build-up this week has focussed on the last meeting between the sides in 2009, and William Gallas’ late goal, set up by Henry after his Hand of Gaul, which secured France’s place in the 2010 World Cup. France genuinely felt – and still feels – terrible about that.
The 2009-2010 France team is not remembered with any fondness at all. Under the despised Raymond Domenech, an under-performing team had been losing favour ever since 2006 and that match against Ireland represented the beginning of the nadir of the team’s popularity. No one in France would dispute that Ireland outplayed les Bleus for that second leg and would have well deserved their victory. To qualify over a likeable Ireland team was embarrassing; to do so in such controversial circumstances even more so.
No doubt it comes as little consolation to the Irish, but both France and Henry arguably received their comeuppance: France imploded very publicly in South Africa as the team went on strike and were then eliminated at the group stage; Henry – France’s record goalscorer and an otherwise irreproachable footballer – had his legacy tarnished, particularly in his home country.
Had all this been against traditional rivals England, Italy or Germany (Schumacher-Battiston anyone?) the guilt may not have been so marked. But France love the Irish – and that love affair has very much been rekindled this summer, as Irish fans (both north and south of the border) have been the perfect guests, adding to the atmosphere, showing that one can show passion for their team with humour, friendship and a lack of violence – and even serenading babies to sleep on public transport!
While a handful of France players remain from that 2009 match (it was Hugo Lloris’ heroics that kept the hosts within one goal of Ireland in the first place), this is a very different France team, both on paper and in the French public’s hearts. Under Didier Deschamps, les Bleus are developing into an exciting young squad with a frightening attacking potential. Gone (for the moment) are the internal squabbles and the troublemakers, with Deschamps publicly declaring that he will not necessarily pick the best individuals, but the best team. Nevertheless, with talented and popular footballers such as Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and Paul Pogba in the squad, France are rightly among the favourites, with a level of popularity behind them that has not been seen since the 1998-2000 vintage of Deschamps’ playing days.
That said, France’s group stage was not plain sailing, as they relied on late goals and individual brilliance from Payet to squeeze past Romania and Albania. Griezmann still seems to be in a bit of a post-Champions League final funk, Pogba still seems obsessed with making every touch of the ball into a potential Vine and a swathe of pre-tournament injuries means that the centre-back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami is far from the first choice. The team – who, as hosts, had not played a competitive match for two years – will now look to step up a gear for the knock-out stages.
The staff admitted that they had wasted three days analysing Northern Ireland, expecting them to be their second round opponents. But they will be wary of Martin O’Neil’s men: a team that took four points against Germany in qualifying and that beat Italy to reach this stage is clearly one to be reckoned with. Rightly or wrongly, France see this Ireland team as a classic British-style team, their strengths being fitness and physicality, a tight defence and an ability to hit teams on the break – particularly through the long ball. Individual ability, especially that of Wes Hoolahan, is acknowledged, but the French mostly admire – and fear – the Boys in Green for their team unity and work ethic.
While French fans are confident that their attack should find their way past the Irish defence, France’s own backline is breachable, with Patrice Evra often caught out of position and the hitherto impressive Rami prone to rushing out and being caught out over the top.
In general the French expect their team to progress. But they are far from complacent and, although everyone has tried to play it down, the revenge factor – added to the already substantial Irish passion – has many worried. No doubt there’ll be drama, but hopefully no karma, in order for France to squeeze through to the quarters.
Jeremy Smith is a French football expert who co-runs French Football Weekly, an English-language website covering all aspects of French football. Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremysmith98