Paris: Tipped to emulate France’s 1984 European champions and 1998 World Cup winners, the ‘Griezmann Generation’s’ bitter Euro 2016 final defeat by Portugal will take some getting over.
After sweeping past world champions Germany in the semi-finals, the stage was set for Antoine Griezmann and his teammates to lead France to a third major tournament triumph on home soil.
But despite losing Cristiano Ronaldo to a first-half knee injury, Portugal prevailed 1-0 courtesy of Eder’s extra-time strike at Stade de France on Sunday, bringing Didier Deschamps’s side to their knees.
“This squad has a big future, but we should have won this Euro and we didn’t,” said Griezmann, who finished as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals.
“We are very sad, a bit annoyed, but that’s football. Sometimes it gives, sometimes it takes away. We have to come back stronger and be ready for the World Cup qualifiers.”
While France’s defeat crushed the dreams of a nation, it at least had the merit not to be accompanied by the player controversies that have plagued the team in tournaments past.
France notoriously went on strike at the 2010 World Cup in protest at the expulsion of striker Nicolas Anelka for insulting coach Raymond Domenech, while several players were punished for bad behaviour at Euro 2012.
But Deschamps, who succeeded Laurent Blanc in 2012, has succeeded in repairing the team’s image and since overturning a 2-0 deficit to beat Ukraine in a qualifying play-off ahead of the 2014 World Cup, they have enjoyed a high level of popularity in France.
“You obviously have regrets when you lose a final, but there’s pride as well,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi.
“It was good to have brought together the French people, to see the excitement around the team, the joy and the happiness from people who love football and people who fell in love with it thanks to our work.”
Deschamps and the French Football Federation made a bold pre-tournament decision to drop Karim Benzema after he was charged over a plot to blackmail international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sextape.
‘Hard to be optimistic’
It was a move that was vindicated as France, spearheaded by Griezmann, romped to the final, only to fall short at the last.
Griezmann, 25, has now lost two major finals in two months, having been on the losing side as Atletico Madrid fell to Real Madrid in May’s Champions League decider, but he was the tournament’s unquestionable poster boy.
Other young players to catch the eye included 22-year-old Samuel Umtiti, the Barcelona new recruit who took Adil Rami’s place at centre-back, and 20-year-old Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman, who made a lively cameo in the final.
Moussa Sissoko, the Newcastle United midfielder, and West Ham United’s Dimitri Payet also staked strong claims for permanent roles in the starting XI, the former producing a stirring display in the final.
But Juventus star Paul Pogba squandered an opportunity to confirm his status as the game’s pre-eminent midfield player, conspicuously failing to stamp his name on the tournament.
Manchester United forward Anthony Martial, meanwhile, played for only the last 10 minutes of the final after being hauled off at half-time of France’s second game against Albania.
With Patrice Evra now 35 and Bacary Sagna 33, there is likely to be turnover in the full-back areas sooner rather than later.
But Deschamps will welcome back several strong characters during World Cup qualifying, including three centre-backs — Raphael Varane, Mamadou Sakho and Jeremy Mathieu — who all missed the tournament.
“Two years ago we got to a (World Cup) quarter-final, now we are finalists. The young players have progressed,” said Deschamps, whose contract expires in 2018.
“We got to the final, but we didn’t get our reward. We’ve had 50 days together since the beginning (mid-May), with an extraordinary group.
“It’s hard to be optimistic (just now), but it augurs well for the future and hopefully it will be exciting.”