“It’s a solid group, containing some strong European teams,” said France coach Didier Deschamps, after Group A had fallen into place at the Preliminary Draw. As well as Les Bleus, the Netherlands, third at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, and Sweden, whose U-21 side were recently crowned champions of Europe, will also fancy their chances of qualifying for Russia 2018.
Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg complete this tricky-looking pool, in which at least one major footballing nation will be left by the wayside.
If Deschamps appeared wary of the draw, it could be because two of France’s future opponents in Group A conjure up painful memories for the former international. During the qualifying campaign for USA 1994 – the last World Cup for which the French failed to qualify – Sweden and Bulgaria finished ahead of the erstwhile midfield general and his team-mates.
While the Scandinavians topped the section, it was the Bulgarians who would eventually deny Les Bleus a berth in the United States, defeating them with a famous last-gasp goal in the final qualifying match, held at the Parc des Princes on 17 November 1993. France only needed a draw to qualify, but the Bulgarians were in a must-win position.
Eric Cantona had given the home side the perfect start in Paris in the 32nd minute but Emil Kostadinov headed an equaliser five minutes later. The same player would later slam the ball high past Bernard Lama in the 90th minute to shatter France’s American dream. “What a bunch of idiots we are,” said Deschamps at the time.
Almost 22 years later, the Bayonne-born tactician and his backroom staff will be keen to avoid any parallels with that difficult campaign and concentrate on advancing to Russia 2018.
Did you know?
Dominant Dutch: With 28 points in the bank and a goal difference of +29, the Netherlands finished with the best record of any team in the UEFA zone at the end of the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup. Moreover, the Oranje were, along with Italy, the first European nation to book their place in Brazil.
Saluting Swedes: In the 87th minute of the second leg of the UEFA European U-21 Championship qualifier between France and Sweden in October 2014, French defender Layvin Kurzawa scored what appeared to be a crucial away goal, bringing his team level on aggregate (3-3). He then celebrated by aggressively saluting in some of the Sweden players’ faces.
But his opponents had the last laugh, netting two minutes later to extend the score on the night to 4-1 and secure an aggregate victory that sent them through to the final tournament. The triumphant Swedes then proceeded to make fun of Kurzawa, mimicking his gesture on the pitch and in the dressing rooms, and later while celebrating capturing a maiden European crown in June 2015. The two rivals will now face off at senior level.
Breakthrough for Belarus: Belarus’ first official match in 1994 culminated in a 2-0 win over Luxembourg, with whom they will lock horns once again in Group A. Their second-ever success came against the Netherlands (1-0), another of Group A’s six participants, a few months later.
7 – The number of times that France and the Netherlands have each faced Luxembourg in World Cup qualifiers.