LAST month, one of the sponsors of the French football team staged a public relations stunt which involved the destruction of a replica of the team coach from the 2010 World Cup finals. The symbolism was obvious – that was then, this is now. The traumas of the past are over.
It is little wonder that France coach Didier Deschamps wants to draw a line under the events in South Africa that saw the French squad refuse to train in protest at Raymond Domenech’s decision to banish Nicolas Anelka for insulting comments. The side failed to win a game, scoring just one goal as they exited at the group stage.
Having reached the World Cup final four years earlier – albeit an achievement that was overshadowed by Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt – the embarrassment at such a chaotic capitulation was acute.
Deschamps’ appointment was an attempt to move on from the debacle, but while the former ‘water carrier’ has fashioned a new French side, two of the chief ringleaders from four years ago – Patrice Evra and Franck Ribery – had remained until the latter was ruled out through injury.
The French public are just about ready to start forgiving them provided things are different this time around, and while a stuttering qualifying campaign required a traumatic play-off win over Ukraine to fashion a happy ending, Les Blues head to Brazil with considerable cause for optimism.
The draw has been kind, with Group E looking the weakest of all the pools. If France can’t see off two of Ecuador, Switzerland and Honduras, they will have achieved nothing in the last four years.
The spine of their side is strong, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris coming off the back of a successful Premier League campaign at Spurs, centre-half Raphael Varane having established himself as one of the most exciting young defenders in La Liga, Paul Pogba having turned heads repeatedly at Juventus last season and Karim Benzema as potent as ever in attack.
Throw in a smattering of players with Newcastle United connections – Mathieu Debuchy and Yohan Cabaye should start, with Moussa Sissoko and Loic Remy on the bench – and France have the basis of a side that could make a major impression, even if Ribery will be a notable absentee.
They should certainly make it out of the group without too much fuss, and might well be joined by Ecuador, who are the most underrated of the South American sides competing in Brazil.
They coasted through qualifying, albeit with the assistance of their altitudeaffected home form in Quito, and recently proved they could prosper against leading European opposition when they won 3-2 in Portugal.
The death of much-loved forward Christian ‘Chucho’ Benitez last year was a hammer-blow in both an emotional and sporting sense, but head coach Reinaldo Rueda has promised to honour Benitez’s memory by at least emulating Ecuador’s last World Cup appearance, when they made it to the knock-out stage in 2006.
Striker Felipe Caicedo is likely to be crucial to their prospects, although a season playing in the Middle East with Al Jazira might not have left him at his sharpest.
Also expect Antonio Valencia to be much more attack-minded in an Ecuador shirt than he often is with Manchester United. Ecuador’s opening game could be crucial as it pits them against a Switzerland side who traditionally add up to more than the sum of their parts.
The Swiss were the only team to beat world champions Spain in South Africa, and will field a side based around a youthful core that made it to the final of the European Under-21 Champion-ships in 2011.
The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Haris Seferovic and Valentin Stocker mean Switzerland should be more attacking than their national stereotype suggests, but they could struggle at the other end with Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou and Steve Von Bergen hardly heading to Brazil buoyed by successful club campaigns.
Honduras complete Group E, but their current side is inferior to the one that failed to win a match in South Africa four years ago.
Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios have gone backwards in the intervening period, while Roger Espinoza and Juan Carlos Garcia struggled to even get a game in the Championship with Wigan last season.
Celtic full-back Emilio Izaguirre is always exciting to watch, but Honduras are likely to adopt a cautious approach as they attempt to claim their first World Cup victory.