France’s match against England tonight represents much more than the actions that are going to take place on the pitch. Tonight offers a chance for the French to send a message of hope to their public after the tragedy that occurred over the weekend. Les Bleu’s have often been the voice of society, for example standing firm during the 1998 World Cup when ex-players labelled some of their biggest stars as “foreigners” for ancestry that came from other parts of the French Empire.
Their most important players during that tournament had roots in Algeria, Guadeloupe and Mali. Before that in the 1984 European Championships, their famous Carre Magique (Magic Square) had routes in Mali, Senegal, Italy and Poland. Tonight’s team have the same issue, as players from different cultural backgrounds, religions and beliefs come together to form a team, united ahead of their hosting of Euro 2016. Whilst their actions off the pitch are going to be under the spotlight, let’s take a look at three players who can alter their fortunes on it.
It’s hard to believe that Griezmann has only just become a fundamental part of the French national team, and even harder to believe that he was nearly left at home as the squad traveled to Brazil last year. During the tournament, Les Bleu’s dazzled with their attacking football, putting 5 past Switzerland before crashing out to Germany. Griezmann offers Deschamps team natural width, but also carries a goal scoring threat that many wingers seem to lack. His ‘tough love’ relationship with Diego Simeone has transformed him from fleeting winger into gritty striker, meaning that the Sociedad-schooled youngster may move into the middle. The Aletico striker’s relationship with Deschamps has never been easy, with the coach always pushing his player to do more. However, his recent form seems to have delighted his coach who described his protege as “clinical, comfortable on either side and tactically very aware”. On a personal level, Griezmann’s sister was a survivor of the Bataclan attacks at the weekend and he will be keen to do her proud.
Like Griezmann, Diarra has direct ties to the Paris attacks that occurred over the weekend. His cousin Asta Diakite was one of the 129 people killed. Friday’s game against Germany was meant to be a momentous occasion for the Marseille man. Born in Paris and making his comeback at the stadium he grew up less than 2 kilometers away from, Diarra has finally set the wheels of his career back in motion after it stalled in Russia. His performances for Olympique de Marseille have been incredibly impressive, adding steel and experience to a team that is young and attack minded. Sitting in front of the back four for Marseille his defensive displays have been eye-catching, but it is his reading of the game that is the most impressive. Like many defensive midfielders nowadays his distribution is as good as his tackling and 80 solid minutes versus World Champions Germany suggested that Diarra still has the class on the pitch to affect games at international level. Emotionally, Diarra will be keen to pay his respects to someone he described as his ‘big sister’ by playing the game of his life.
In a team full of international superstars, Matuidi has become one of the most important players at Paris Saint Germain. The ultimate box-to-box midfielder, with incredible athleticism it’s surprising that Matuidi has not been gaining attention from clubs on this side of the channel. Matuidi was PSG’s first signing after their Qatari takeover, and was bought in as a direct replacement for the outgoing Claude Makalele. In his time at PSG, Matuidi has grown infintely as a player; adding a fantastic passing range to his already rounded games, but most importantly has a knack of scoring goals at crucial times – scoring the winning goal against Barcelona in the Champions League, and the goal to secure PSG’s league title against Montpelier. Acting as the lynchpin for France at international level, Matuidi has been a mainstay since Euro2012 providing a viable out-ball to relieve pressure, but most importantly acting as the glue between defence and attack. France have an electric front-three and the work rate of Matuidi clearing up in behind allows those to flourish. His lung-bursting runs will catch the eye tonight, but be mindful that there is much more to Matuidi than running.
About the Author – Ben Jarman
Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.