France’s UEFA Nations League prep defined by Mbappe, Benzema happy reunion and Deschamps’ sadness
Up to that point, everything was going perfectly well. Didier Deschamps had welcomed 23 very happy France players to camp on Saturday ahead of four UEFA Nations League games over the next two weeks. There was Kylian Mbappe, who recently shocked the soccer world by extending his stay at Paris Saint-Germain. There was Antoine Griezmann, so relieved to be reunited with his countrymen again and to get a breath of fresh air after weeks of difficulty at Atletico Madrid toward the end of the 2021-22 season.
There was Boubacar Kamara, the young midfielder who just completed a move from Marseille to Aston Villa and is celebrating his first-ever national team call-up. There were sightings of RB Leipzig’s all-action playmaker Christopher Nkunku, William Saliba (who is returning to Arsenal after a successful loan at Marseille) and Lens defender Jonathan Clauss, who’s happy to be back for a second international break in a row. The sun was shining, there were smiles all around and a very positive vibe before their games against Denmark, Croatia (twice) and Austria in their Nations League group.
The arrival of Karim Benzema on Monday evening, following his Champions League win with Real Madrid and fifth European title in the past eight years, brought even more joy to Clairefontaine. He was reunited with Mbappe, and we all waited for the “retrouvailles” between the most lethal pair of centre-forwards in the world. Would there be any tension after Mbappe’s choice to reject Real Madrid and stay in Paris? Hardly! The pair shared a big hug and plenty of jokes — none of the nonsense that appeared on social media after news broke of Mbappe’s decision.
Mbappe has been a radiant presence around Clairefontaine this week: a leader on and off the pitch, excellent at training, vocal, committed. It’s almost as if the new deal he got at PSG had lifted a huge weight of his shoulders.
But then, devastating news. France coach Didier Deschamps received word on Tuesday that his father had died, so he returned home, to the southwest of France, to be with family. His players held a very emotional minute of silence before training on Tuesday — his assistant Guy Stephan ran the sessions — and Deschamps’ phone was inundated by messages of grief, support and love from his squad and staff.
As they’ve shown countless times since Deschamps became manager in 2012, this team are more than just a team. They stick together whenever things get difficult and boast a remarkable spirit, which was on display again this week.
It is a week that Deschamps will never forget, of course, and also a week in which so much has happened for his players. Though Paul Pogba was omitted from this call-up by Deschamps so he could rest and prepare for the new season, we got confirmation that his time at Manchester United was finished; after six years of ups and downs, the French midfielder will not play for them again. Usually, Pogba gets a huge emotional boost when joining the national team, but he’s got to sort out his future, with Juventus (where he played from 2012 to 2016) his most likely destination. (He’s expected to announce his new club in his Amazon docu-series, called “The Pogmentary,” which should debut on June 17.)
It will be interesting to see how Les Bleus perform without his leadership and talent in this quartet of big matches. Aurélien Tchouameni will replace him in midfield, and he too will never forget this week. After all, this is the week in which he’s expected to join Real Madrid.
The agreement, revealed last week by ESPN, is now fully in place despite some issues with the taxes on the transfer. The former Monaco player has spoken about it with Benzema, who has told him everything he wanted and needed to know about the Spanish giants — including how to become a European champion!
Real will pay a big price to complete the deal, but Tchouameni is worth every penny. In the span of 12 months, the LaLiga champions have bought the two players who should dominate the France midfield (Eduardo Camavinga and Tchouameni) for the next 10 years! Until that deal’s completed, though, France will take full advantage of Tchouameni’s talent, whether he starts alongside N’Golo Kante or Adrien Rabiot in midfield on Friday, or even if he’s the first option off the bench.
The strength in depth is as good as it’s ever been for France, but this team could also see historic changes taking place this week off the pitch. Noel Le Graet, head of the French FA (FFF), had a meeting with Mbappe, Hugo Lloris, Griezmann, Kanté and Raphael Varane to discuss players’ image rights when on international duty.
Until now, French national team players had to do what the federation wanted them to do in terms of marketing and sponsorship, with the FFF holding their image rights from the their first call-up to their last. In March, Mbappe refused to let his image being used by some of France’s sponsors, saying no to a gambling partner and a fast food partner. The players, following the PSG star’s lead, want more control, and Le Graet is expected to yield to their requests. A second meeting is due in the next few days, but this is a positive step forward.
Friday night’s game against Denmark at the Stade de France cannot come too early. The players will start the defence of their Nations League, which they want to retain, and they will play for Deschamps and his family. (Deschamps will not be there, with his deputy Stephan taking charge on the bench.) They will also play with the World Cup in Qatar in the back of their minds. The defence of that title also starts now, as November will arrive quicker than we think. It’s time to focus.