“Et un et deux et trois zéro!” Mamadou Sakho, Paul Pogba, and Raphael Varane were still young boys when this triumphant refrain reverberated around France in 1998, following Les Bleus’ sensational 3-0 victory over Brazil in the Final of the FIFA World Cup™.
But 15 years later on Tuesday evening at the Stade de France, the site of that famous success, it was the now grown-up trio’s turn to become national heroes, inspiring France to achieve an unprecedented feat in Europe: overcoming a two-goal handicap in a World Cup play-off.
Just two days ago, few observers would have believed that the key to France’s qualification for Brazil 2014 could lie in the hands of some of the squad’s most inexperienced youngsters. Didier Deschamps had previously placed his trust in stalwarts such as Franck Ribery, Eric Abidal and Patrice Evra for high-pressure encounters, just as he did when selecting his line-up for the first leg in Kiev.
France’s 2-0 defeat in the Olympic Stadium forced the former Juventus and Marseille supremo’s hand somewhat, however. “To qualify, we’re going to have to put in an extraordinary performance. We’ll need to outdo ourselves and push ourselves to the limit, while remaining in control,” he stated.
In the end, he chose to retain a small band of on-form influential players, with Ribery at the top of the list, but otherwise rang the changes, switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, bringing in Sakho and Varane, 23 and 20 respectively, at the back and handing the 20-year-old Pogba a creative role in midfield.
“I’m one of the youngest in the squad along with ‘Raph’ [Varane]," said Pogba prior to the game. "It’s amazing to be involved in a match like this – we need to turn the pressure to our advantage. That’s what experience teaches you,”
By the end of the 90 minutes, Deschamps’ plan had paid off, as the three players registered impressive displays and became symbols of an XI that managed to get back to winning ways by significantly lowering its average age.
It should be noted that France’s younger generations have acquired a taste for success in recent times, lifting the FIFA U-20 World Cup and reaching the final of the UEFA European U-19 Championship, both held earlier this year.
“I was delighted to see players from my age group represent our country in such a way. It creates momentum and a desire to win trophies. I think that the U-20 victory was a great boost for the image of French football in general,” Varane told FIFA.com recently.
The Real Madrid defender was forced to sit out the U-20 triumph in Turkey through injury, but he appears to have no intention of missing next year’s South American trip. “We’re on our way to Brazil! We made it; thanks to everyone!!!” he posted on Twitter after his fine outing versus the Ukrainians.
From Turkey to Brazil
Pogba, on the other hand, was instrumental in Les Bleuets’ remarkable showing at Turkey 2013, finishing second in the voting for the adidas Golden Ball award.
As part of the senior side on Tuesday night, he performed in a manner than belied his age, winning countless balls in midfield and subsequently providing Karim Benzema, Mathieu Valbuena and Ribery with excellent service and support.
“It’s a dream that’s become a reality; it’s fantastic. I can’t find the words to describe what I feel. To think that now I’m going to play in the ‘real’ World Cup – I’m just so happy,” said the Turin-based international.
Sakho, meanwhile, could not take part in the Turkish campaign because, at 23, he was already too ‘old’. But the Liverpool defender, who played marvellously well against Ukraine, now looks likely to be part of the French squad that will cross the ocean next summer.
“I’m filled with happiness. Tonight, we made history and showed that the French national team has a lot to offer. It’s wonderful, it’s emotional, it’s extraordinary. Wearing this jersey represents something big. Today we saw an entire stadium getting behind a team, and that team giving 100 per cent for the jersey in return,” he said.
Fresh from scoring his first two international goals and defending flawlessly throughout the game, he added: “I really hope that this is the start of something.”
“You don’t go to a World Cup just to take part, but we’ll also be using it to prepare for EURO 2016,” confirmed Deschamps. “Some of our young players don’t have the same level of experience as Pogba and Varane. And then there's the question of finding the right balance of young players and older heads,” concluded the victorious coach.