Erratic France slowly rediscover their pedigree
PARIS (Reuters) - Four years after making fools of themselves in South Africa, France have regained their credibility and can even realistically contemplate making a major impact at the World Cup finals.
In 2010, Les Bleus went on strike in support of Nicolas Anelka, who had been kicked out of the squad for insulting coach Raymond Domenech, and exited the competition in the first round.
Laurent Blanc took the team to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals but off-field problems again got in the way and the French players were lambasted for their childish behaviour.
It has taken new coach Didier Deschamps less than two years to transform the squad and their image.
"They can go far," said former France forward Youri Djorkaeff, a member of the World Cup-winning team in 1998.
"Winning the World Cup might be complicated but I think they have recovered the panache, the desire, the stability that can help them go through the group phase and challenge the best teams."
France, drawn in Group E with Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador, should claim top spot. Since 1998, the erratic French have either reached the final or failed to win a game at the World Cup.
The official FIFA World Cup rankings for their last four World Cup finals appearances bear that point out perfectly: 1st in 1998, 28th in 2002, 2nd in 2006, 29th in 2010.
If that pattern is repeated they are due to reach the final again this time, but a semi-final appearance might be a more likely target if they click as they can.
And their qualifying campaign was a microcosm of their ability to turn out Jekyll and Hyde performances. After a series of indifferent matches in the regular campaign, the playoff against Ukraine was the turning point.
The qualifying campaign was disappointing but victory in the playoffs gave a hint of a better future, when the Stade de France crowd finally backed their team unreservedly.
After a 2-0 defeat in Kiev, Deschamps dumped defender Eric Abidal and midfielder Samir Nasri for the return leg.
Les Bleus played fearlessly as centre-back Mamadou Sakho scored two goals with a resurgent Karim Benzema netting the other to guarantee a last-gasp passage to Brazil.
"Something strong happened. Most of them had no happy memories with France," said Deschamps. "Now it's part of their history, it changes a lot of things."
Sports daily L'Equipe, who wondered on their front page after the first leg if France were the "worst team" in history, made a U-turn after the second game with the headline "Respect".
A team which had no clear direction on the pitch, France now rely on a stable midfield consisting of Yohan Cabaye, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, a perfect launching pad for the attacking trio of Mathieu Valbuena, Franck Ribery and Benzema.
Ribery, one of the players sanctioned over the South Africa debacle, failed to sparkle at Euro 2012 but he has been beaming on and off the pitch since then, although he has been suffering from back pains recently.
Benzema went through a scoring drought but Deschamps kept the faith, which was eventually repaid when the Real Madrid striker finally hit his stride in the blue jersey.
The 26-year-old, who has brushed aside the claims of Olivier Giroud to become the first-choice striker, has netted four times in his last five appearances.
France's rejuvenation has come at the expense of promising players like Hatem Ben Arfa and Nasri, the latter possibly paying for his reputation as a troublemaker.
The team are already preparing for Euro 2016, which will be played in France.
Young players such as centre-back Raphael Varane and Pogba are showing with Real Madrid and Juventus they have what it takes to drive the side forward.