Can France Win For the Third Time as Host Nation?

As Euro 2016 begins this weekend amid fears of terrorist attack and outbreaks of hooliganism—all too predictably, some English fans spent the eve of the tournament rampaging through Marseilles—some people in the home nation, France, will wonder whether it will have been worth hosting the tournament at all, given the attendant dangers. Perhaps the only thing that will make them happy and justify all the expense and aggravation of being the host nation is if the French team can triumph, making it a hat-trick of home tournament wins after the 1984 European Championship and the 1998 World Cup wins.

Can France Win For the Third Time as Host Nation?

For a long time, it was one of the great ironies of international football that France, the nation that had done so much to organise it in the first place through visionaries such as Jules Rimet and Henry Delaunay (who inspired and organised the first World Cup and first European Championship respectively), had achieved so little in international competition. Prior to the early 1980s, France’s finest performance in a major international tournament was to come third in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, and that was largely down to the sheer goal-scoring genius of striker Just Fontaine, who scored 13 goals, a single-tournament record that still stands and that may well never be beaten, given the greater emphasis on defensive play in the modern game compared to post-war football.

However, as is always the case, with a generation of great players came great footballing success.  Led by Michel Platini, who may now be reviled as one of football’s worst (and perhaps even most corrupt) administrators but as a player was one of the true greats of the game, France finally began to emerge from the footballing shadows in the late 1970s. First, they performed impressively at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, only being eliminated in the first round after giving Italy and the host nation, who eventually won the trophy, tough matches. Then, four years later in Spain, Platini finally received the help he needed with the development of fellow midfield stars Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse. Although France were eventually, cruelly defeated by the then West Germany in the semifinal on penalties, at the end of one of the all-time great World Cup matches, the seeds had been sown for a triumphant display on home soil two years later.

France 1984 was one of the greatest ever international tournaments, with World Soccer magazine, among others, describing it at the time as the finest international competition since Mexico ’70, the Brazil-won World Cup that remains to this day the gold standard of international tournaments. Led and inspired by Platini and the rest of the so-called “Carré Magique” (or magic square) midfield, with the robust Luis Fernandez perfectly complementing the more graceful Platini, Giresse and Tigana, France stormed to victory. In the process, they purged the memory of their 1982 semifinal defeat to West Germany with a triumphant semifinal victory of their own against Portugal, with Platini scoring the winner in the final minute of extra time. With only eight nations competing and seemingly every match a classic (with the exception of a disappointing final), France 1984 was the “parfait” way for France to end its losing record in international tournaments.

However, for all the genius of Platini and his fellow midfielders, the France team of the early to mid-1980s never won the World Cup. In 1986, when the tournament was again staged in Mexico, they once more succumbed to West Germany in the semifinals, and this time in utterly undramatic fashion. It was only when the global competition was held on French soil for the second time in 1998 (France having first staged the tournament in 1938, on the eve of WWII, going out in the quarterfinals to eventual winners Italy) that France finally won the global tournament that Rimet, perhaps its most famous footballing son (even more so than Fontaine and Platini), had imagined nearly a century before.

In many ways, the French World Cup-winning side of 1998 lacked the flair and – dare I say it? – joie de vivre of the 1984 European Championship-winning team. In large part, that was down to the halting performance of its own spiritual leader and finest player, Zinedine Zidane, who was deservedly sent off in a first round game against Saudi Arabia (in a foretaste of his expulsion from the 2006 World Cup final for head-butting Marco Materazzi, Zidane stamped on a Saudi player) and struggled for form when he returned after a two-match ban. However, if France lacked a “magic square” midfield in 1998, they more than made up for it with a cast-iron defence of Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu, who led the team to the final by conceding only one goal in three knock-out games and even provided match-winning goals themselves, through Blanc’s late strike against Paraguay and Thuram’s priceless pair of goals against Croatia in the semifinal (the only goals he would ever score for France).

Then, Zidane finally came to the fore – or rather forehead – by heading two goals in the final against Brazil, before the brilliant Emmanuel Petit confirmed victory with a late third, sending Paris into paroxysms of delight and more people into the boulevards to celebrate than at any time since the city’s liberation from the Nazis at the end of WWII.

Now, of course, after Euro 1984 and the World Cup in 1998, France is aiming for a hat-trick of home tournament triumphs, which would make it the first European nation to win three continental or global championships on its own soil.  They probably have the best squad of any of the 24 competing nations (the European Championships has trebled in size since the 1984 tournament, with an inevitable dilution in the quality of competing teams), but if they are really to challenge for the trophy they will almost certainly need one player to emerge from the pack in the vein of Platini in 1984 and Zidane in 1998.

Many observers are confidently predicting that that man will be Paul Pogba, the Juventus midfielder who is currently the biggest transfer target in Europe, with Manchester United and the two Spanish giants – Real Madrid and FC Barcelona – competing for his signature when he almost certainly moves on from Juve after the tournament. However, Pogba is still only 23, is relatively inexperienced, even callow (as demonstrated by the costly back-heel on the edge of his own penalty box that ultimately led to Juve’s defeat against Bayern Munich in the Champions League this season) and as a central, rather than attacking, midfielder is unlikely to provide the number of goals that Platini and Zidane provided in the past.

A better bet to be the French talisman may be Antoine Griezmann, the Atletico Madrid striker (he is now definitively a striker after spending much of his career on the wing) who has had such a stellar season in La Liga and the Champions League, scoring more than 30 goals as Atletico again narrowly lost out against city rivals Real in the Champions League final. In that game, Griezmann showed that he has the character to go with his undoubted skill, by volunteering to take a penalty in the penalty shoot-out competition after missing a spotkick during the match itself. That was the kind of “steel cojones” that the great Zidane himself had demonstrated from the spot in the European Championship semifinal in 2000 against Portugal, when, like Platini before him, he scored the match-winning goal at the very end of extra time. Such character may well stand Griezmann in good stead for other shoot-outs at the Euros.

If Griezmann proves himself another Just Fontaine (even scoring half the goals that Fontaine scored in 1958 will surely make him the tournament’s top scorer) and leads France to victory this summer, there would be another lovely irony to celebrate, in that he has never played club football in France. His entire professional club career to date has been spent in Spain, first with Real Sociedad and now with Atletico, and so the European Championship will be the first opportunity for many French fans to see him in the flesh.

However, although France are definitely contenders to make it a remarkable hat-trick of home triumphs, there is one other team going for a treble triumph of their own. That team, of course, is Spain, who after winning the European Championship in 2008 and 2012, are bidding to win the Euros for a third time in a row. They may not be the force of old, particularly after the decline and eventual retirement of the inimitable Xavi, but in his footballing soulmate Andres Iniesta and other stars such as Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and David Silva, they still have formidable players. Consequently, it will be fascinating to see whether France or Spain can make it a hat-trick of glorious triumphs over the next month, or whether another team – perhaps Germany, the World Champions – can shatter both their dreams.