With Sizzling World Cup Scoring, France Shake Off 2010’s Campaign of Shame

If the FIFA World Cup was purely a contest of cumulative goals scored, France would be able to toss a glance back at most of the competition with an appropriate shrug of French indifference after their first two matches.

After a 2010 Cup campaign that was, to put it lightly, a disastrous national embarrassment, the team is trying to rebrand itself as a bearer of good news — nailing the ball into the net eight times in two games and holding opponents to only two goals total.

Yes, eight. In Friday’s match against Switzerland, it happened twice in less than a minute. (The Netherlands also managed eight goals in their first two games, and as of Monday they now have 10.)

For you non-soccer (football, excuse me) people, let me explain briefly: that kind of scoring, well, simply does not happen in the World Cup’s modern incarnation. Since the 1970s, there has been a clear downward trend in average goals per game; the mark usually ranges between two and three for both teams combined (barely more than two in ’06 and ’10). The most hyped team this year, Brazil, battled to a 0-0 tie with Mexico last week.

Bien sûr, the real contest here isn’t over total goals. France have done the winning thing, too, so far. But where do they stack up?

Analysts were a bit flummoxed on Les Bleus when weighing prospects for the 2014 renewal of the Cup, given the team’s recent penchant for unpredictability. The 1998 champions made it back to the finals in 2006 (losing to Italy on penalties after time had expired), but were sent home after one round in both 2002 and 2010.

No doubt 2010 is still quite fresh on French minds. The team was getting set to play their third group round match against South Africa, the host nation, when striker Nicolas Anelka was expelled from the team for a nasty verbal scuffle with then-Coach Raymond Domenech. Every other player, like proper Frenchmen, immediately went on strike — refusing to get off the team bus for a practice leading up to the match. The strike splashed prominently across newspapers worldwide.

A 2-1 loss in that game, combined with a 2-0 defeat to Mexico and a 0-0 draw against Uruguay, sealed France’s self-destruction and sent them home to an aghast fan base that wasted no time in giving them the cold shoulder.

It’s been four years since Les Bleus brought public shame to a country that, in response, became remarkably disillusioned with the team (though disillusionment hasn’t exactly been a rare phenomenon recently in French culture; economic sluggishness and le chômage aren’t helping). And even with the passage of time, their fans have lacked mercy — a national survey taken in late April found that only a fifth of the French had a favorable opinion of their football squad.

So perhaps this explosive display of unexpectedly competitive football is, in part, an apology. Perhaps it’s further indication that anything is possible on the Cup stage — where reigning champions and top-seeded Spain have already been eliminated and soccer giant England went home this week after three listless performances.

Isn’t a pair of dominant wins enough, even for the skeptical French? Not necessarily. Given that football is now the most popular sport in France, it is easy to forget that a few decades ago the French had a strong prejudice against the game, and there are still some who label it as a money-guzzling distraction from matters of governance, economy and academia. (Domenech, the former coach, speculated earlier this month that France’s defeat of Ukraine in a qualifying match for the Cup has helped cause the crisis enveloping the country at present. But I think we can dismiss that accusation with some confidence.)

The raucous behavior often exhibited by young players hasn’t helped the sport’s public image. Such obscene outbursts aren’t very French — nor is the ensuing media frenzy that puts the players’ private lives into public scrutiny.

On a positive note, France have conjured up substantial momentum from somewhere, and they’re guaranteed a berth into the final 16, the next step on this most difficult quest to ultimate football glory. Ranked 17th in the world before the Cup began, the team came to town with modest hopes in a tough group, though the sixth-ranked Swiss didn’t put up much of a fight.

In a best-case scenario, if it comes down to a France vs. Brazil final, the home-turf undisputed favorites in this year’s Cup, the French will be dismissed by many as a massive underdog. Understandable. As one of my coworkers joked after Brazil’s first match this year, “Well, if I were a ref and I wanted to save my own ass, I sure wouldn’t make a call against Brazil, in Brazil.”

But perhaps it’s about time for France to rekindle the national fire from a glorious day 16 years ago — when they demolished Brazil 3-0 and became World Cup champions. The victory tied the record for biggest margin of victory in a Cup final. It also led to le football’s meteoric rise.

On Wednesday, the French play Ecuador in their final group round match. Maybe just one more emphatic win, giving France an easy victory in Group E, will be enough to convince the fans at home that this renewal of their embattled football team merits some noise, some uncivilized jumping-up-and-down and yelling at TV screens. Some true, rousing national pride.

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