Matt Spiro: Why the France team have become a beacon of hope at an awkward time

France-based writer and commentator Matt Spiro on the optimism around Deschamps' host nation

France, Anthony Martial, Antoine Griezmann

France's Antoine Griezmann replaces Anthony Martial during the international friendly soccer match between England and France at Wembley Stadium in London, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. France is playing England at Wembley on Tuesday after the countries decided the match should go ahead despite the deadly attacks in Paris last Friday night which killed scores of people. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

For France, the Euros are coming at an awkward time. Social unrest sparked by controversial labour reforms is escalating, the fear of terrorist attacks continues to weigh heavily on the public consciousness, and an improbable blackmailing scandal has cost Les Bleus the services of their best player.

Set against such a backdrop, you might think the French are dreading this summer’s tournament. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. These are difficult times, but football – as it did in 1998 – is threatening to play a federating role again.

The horrific attacks on Paris last November, which included explosions outside the Stade de France during the friendly with Germany, tested the people’s resolve. But the nation has responded in an overwhelmingly strong, unified fashion – and football has played its part. The poignant scenes at Wembley four days later, when France and England united to sing La Marseillaise, touched souls around the world.

There was apprehension when Les Bleus returned to the Stade de France in March, but the game against Russia proved an unmitigated triumph. "Communion" was the single-word headline plastered onto L’Equipe’s front page after a 4-2 win and a night of joyous festivity that saw 65,000 supporters stick two proverbial fingers up at the terrorists by getting behind the players and, crucially, enjoying themselves.

Paris’ first mass public gathering since November had an extremely positive cathartic effect. More of the same would be welcome this summer, when the French will again be resoundingly supportive of Didier Deschamps’ youthful, united and resurgent side.

These days, the national team’s results are almost secondary. So traumatised by the embarrassing controversies and spoilt-brat culture that has engulfed Les Bleus at recent tournaments, fans have become less demanding. They no longer expect France to win competitions. They simply want to see players that get along, feel proud to pull on the blue shirt and give their all for the collective cause.

Under Deschamps that’s exactly what they are getting.

Matt has also spoken to Newstalk's Team 33 about France's hopes:

The first indication the feel-good factor was returning came in November 2013 when Mamadou Sakho’s double inspired a remarkable comeback in the World Cup play-off against Ukraine. Already, team unity was a central theme for Deschamps, who axed Samir Nasri before that game after describing him as “a harmful presence”.

Amid the frenzied celebrations on the Stade de France pitch, the lasting image was that of the coach being hoisted aloft and given the bumps by his players. Despite losing to Germany in the quarter-finals, Deschamps was praised for forging a veritable team that purveyed a positive, likeable image.

More trouble was around the corner, though. When Karim Benzema was accused of playing a role in blackmailing Mathieu Valbuena over a sextape, it looked like a return to the bad old days. The case is ongoing but Deschamps’ decisive action ensured preparations have not been overshadowed by the controversy.

On April 18, the 1998 World Cup-winning captain announced he would not be selecting Benzema on the grounds that all players must show “exemplary” behavior. Deschamps has frequently said that he will “pick the best team, not necessarily the best players”, and Benzema’s exclusion is a case in point.

Few in France are arguing. A survey in Le Parisien revealed 85.6% of its readers don’t want Benzema picked. So Foot magazine called Benzema “a senior but hated figure”, describing him as somebody who is "too bling-bling, doesn’t smile, doesn’t sing the national anthem, and above all is linked to the court case that has sunk Valbuena."

Didier Deschamps, coach of the French national soccer team, gives a press conference in Biarritz, southwestern France, Wednesday, May 18, 2016. The French team prepares for the Euro 2016 soccer championship that will take place in France from June 1 to July 10. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

When Deschamps’ longstanding nemesis Eric Cantona recently accused him of leaving out Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa "because of their origins", the comments were met with scorn. Such a claim might have inflamed debate a few years ago, but the public is behind Deschamps and recognizes his influence as unifier, not a divider.

Benzema’s exclusion may have stirred sour memories for Cantona, who, along with David Ginola, was himself left out in 1996 to make room for the Zinedine Zidane generation. That proved a masterstroke and there is optimism history could repeat itself.

On the same day Benzema’s omission was made official, Antoine Griezmann scored twice in Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 win over Barcelona. That felt symbolic. Griezmann, a modest, unassuming attacker with an infectious smile, exudes a very different image to the sulky Benzema. Both are exceptional, but Griezmann is a player the French will love cheering on this summer.

Along with Paul Pogba, Griezmann is the leader of the new generation, the focal point of a team that France is learning to love once more. This summer, Les Bleus’ will try to win the Euros for a third time. But above all they will aim to present a united front and to do their country proud. A wounded nation will be counting on them to deliver.