Monday 23 April 2018

Hosts start to enjoy own party despite pressure to raise a nation's spirits

Olivier Giroud leaps highest to set up Antoine Griezmann for what proved to be France’s winning goal. Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images
Olivier Giroud leaps highest to set up Antoine Griezmann for what proved to be France’s winning goal. Photo: Lars Baron/Getty Images

Glenn Moore

Hosting a party has its advantages. You get to pick the food, don't have to worry about drinking-and-driving, and control the music. But there are drawbacks, like doing the preparation and the washing up.

So it is with hosting football tournaments. The food, grounds and environment are familiar, there is massive home support, more access to families, and guaranteed qualification.

However, there are also raised expectations to cope with, and sidestepping qualifying is a mixed blessing.

Ireland got to France the hard way. Defeat in Glasgow in November 2014, followed by successive home draws against Poland and Scotland, seemed to spell the end of their campaign a year before the tournament began.

But then the Scots stalled while Ireland won three on the bounce, with Germany among the vanquished. That gained them a play-off chance and, following a foggy night in Bosnia, Jon Walters sent Dublin wild.

Such adversity forges bonds within a squad, and also usually enables the manager to hone his team, having found who produces their best in pressure matches, who shrinks under stress, and which formations work best with which players.

Ireland came here with a clearly defined way of playing and an indomitable spirit.

Coaches of host teams do not have those advantages. They have to decipher their best team via a series of friendlies.

This is doubly unfortunate given the extra expectation on host nations, a pressure few cope with.

The most spectacular example of a team imploding under the strain is Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, but they are one of many.

Since Argentina won the World Cup in 1978, only one host has been triumphant and the failures include four countries good enough to have won the competition elsewhere in that period - Italy, Germany and Spain besides Brazil.

Furthermore only one host team has won the European Championship since the competition expanded to eight teams in 1980.

The good news for Didier Deschamps is the exception in both cases is France, The 1984 continental champions inspired by Michel Platini and the 1998 global winners led by Deschamps himself.

"It can be done. I am the proof," the manager can tell his players.

However, football was nowhere near the cultural behemoth it has now become back in 1984 and even in 1998 France was far from obsessed by the Coupe du Monde.

Not until Laurent Blanc put them into the last eight with his golden goal winner against Paraguay did La Patrie really get behind Les Bleus.

France is still not consumed by football in the way nations such as Italy, Brazil, England, Argentina and Germany are, but it is in need of heroes.

Understandably fearful of terrorism, and engulfed in domestic industrial strife, their footballers bear the burden of bringing joy via this glorious distraction. It is a responsibility they have struggled to deal with.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the players who carried them through the group stages - Dimitri Payet and N'Golo Kante - came into this tournament as relatively recent additions to the squad. Only in March was Payet recalled and Kante capped.

The spotlight at the start was on Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann but they were subbed in the first match against Romania, then dropped for the second as Deschamps sought his right team.

With France again struggling against Albania the pair came off the bench, rescued the win, and kept their place.

Teams evolve during tournaments - both these two have - but France go into the last eight still unsure of their best team.

In the first half, they seemed a collection of individuals. Robbie Brady's early penalty unsettled them and they tried too hard to be the one who made the difference.

"We were a bit annoyed and started playing their game," said Payet. "We wasted a lot of energy."


Pogba, desperate to make up for conceding the spot-kick, was especially guilty.

Then Deschamps introduced Kingsley Coman and changed the team's shape. France began to play with more width, and to move the ball quicker, stretching an Irish team tiring in the sun (France had had three days' more rest).

By the end they were pulling Ireland apart and should have won more comfortably.

France now go back to Paris, to face England or Iceland next Sunday.

They have reason to feel confident. The periods when they are playing to their potential are becoming longer. They are also beginning, through winning difficult matches like this one, to forge the spirit and belief required of all successful teams.

Yet there was enough here for future opponents to believe the hosts are vulnerable to gatecrashers walking away with the silverware. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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