FIFA World Cup 2018: France's young defence faces stiff challenge against Belgium's attack in semi-final

Few countries have been driven to define themselves as linguistically as France. From Rimbaud to ratatouille, metaphors are as rich as the sense of turning fine wine around their tongues in private vineyards. It’s a nation whose most prominent philosopher, Albert Camus, played football and where everything is paraphrased into degrees of comparisons.

 FIFA World Cup 2018: Frances young defence faces stiff challenge against Belgiums attack in semi-final

Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane in action. AFP

This quiet determination to define everything from the abstract to aile de pigeon. The most French of finishing moves aile de pigeon is where a player standing with his back to goal, V’s his legs behind to reach a ball that is beyond him - creating a possibility that was not there before. While this habit has left quite a lot of unease among up-and-coming French pépites (gold nuggets) during international competitions, the aile de pigeon is the perfect metaphor for this alternative, yet fresh French defence who took their chance when no one expected them to.

Centre-backs Samuel Umtiti, and full-backs Lucas Hernandez, and Benjamin Pavard weren’t Didier Deschamps first choice backline. This time last year, Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibé were bombing down either flank like there is a fire that needs to douse. Their telescopic limbs provided the fine balance between adventure and carelessness, and plenty of au caviar crosses for target man Olivier Giroud to nip into. It seemed to work rather well with the double-sweeper in Laurent Koscielny and Raphael Varane kicking things out wide when danger prevailed.

This kind of high-stakes football produced a 5-0 apple-bobbing session where they picked off Paraguay almost every time they held their breath and dived into attack; a 3-2 pipping of England last year. But then, Laurent Koscielny, Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibé suffered from a torn Achilles, a ruptured cruciate ligament and meniscus injury respectively. But as the French know so intrinsically, that for every count of entropy and for every copy of Camus’ The Fall there’s the positivism of Auguste Comte.

“When I was selected, I’m not going to lie to you, I wept. At first when I heard ‘Benjamin’ I thought it was Mendy. No, it was me. I was with my family, my agent and my friends and, it was joy, only joy. To play in the World Cup at my age, there’s nothing more beautiful,” said a twenty-two-and-in-love-with-life Benjamin Pavard upon his selection. The call was a long time coming.

Benjamin’s Stuttgart debut came on 3 October 2016, in Germany’s second division. Playing SpVgg Greuther Fürth, a twenty-year-old stood at centre back and with the grey-templed calmness of a football savant, philosophised a long, cultured pass onto the toe of striker Carlos Mané. Scoring the third goal and facilitating a 4-0 rout to not missing a single second of Stuttgart’s back-in-the-Bundesliga campaign last year, finishing with the second-best defence only behind Bayern; Pavard has been quietly establishing his reputation as one of the most technically-complete and tactically-astute full-backs in the European game. His crack-whip strike against Argentina was him announcing his existence in the face of entropy, when his team were 2-1 down.

Pavard’s full-back partner, Lucas Hernandez, is the bad cop in this relationship. Lucas is the son of former Atletico Madrid tough-as-nails centre-back, Jean-François Hernández. Lucas, naturally, has been raised for the Diego Simeone school of hard-knocks as soon as he learned how to kick the ball in anger. For Atletico, he plays with jaws clenched and brows furrowed, with the narrow-eyed concentration of a fatalist who knows that good fortune may turn any time like the rogue waves in his home city of Marseille. He has been chiselled in the ruthless, no-foul-no-reward concrete lot football culture of the French port city. The constant nipper-of-ankles is a holder of two passports, and displays both the pragmatism of the French and cunning of the Spanish.

On his watch, Antoine Griezmann, who plays 30 meters ahead of him, has more recklessness in his dribbles. His presence of mind allows Barcelona centre-back, Samuel Umtiti to step out of defence and man mark the opposing team’s aerial threat, while Real Madrid sweeper Raphael Varane, and snuff out the second ball. If Umtiti is turned on the ball in the wider areas, as it is an occupational hazard that comes with being a stopper who holds a high-line, it’ll be club-rival Hernandez who will go studs-first to put a full-stop at the end of an opponent's move. But Samuel Umtiti, mind, is no cart of upturned potatoes.

The Belgians have a phrase - een bal op het hoofd schilderen - that roughly translates to paint the ball with the head. It’s what the Belgians traditionally call a header so powerful and precise that it takes some off the colour off the ball. Packed to the brim with burgeoning muscles, his forehead will have to contend with one of the most enviable tasks in world football - winning aerial duels with Belgium’s battering ram, Romelu Lukaku. Umtiti, not unlike Laurent Koscielny, has a moment or two of madness in him which is a calling card for players who play this role. This, however, doesn’t away his quality. The year before Barcelona signed Samuel Umtiti, he was voted by Lyon fans as their best player ahead of 21-goal-hero Alexandre Lacazette - such was his impact. Samuel Umtiti is all about emphasis and a bit of play-acting.

Football history has taught us that all the best teams need a bit of belligerence on the side. For all the positivity and cat burglar precision of the French frontline, it’ll perhaps be the snidely-shrewd street-smartness of a French defence that again elevates the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to their zenith.

Little wonder then why Zinedine Zidane from his high-table still doffs his invisible hat to Bixente Lizarazu, Marcel Desailly, and the current French team manager, Didier Deschamps. No one defended the practice of ‘praxis’ (the individual working for the collective gain) quite like French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the Class of 1998 did.

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Updated Date: Jul 10, 2018 10:49:09 IST