LUSAIL, Qatar (AP)France played its part in one of the most memorable finishes in World Cup history, even though the defending champions failed to retain the title.
Kylian Mbappe’s hat trick of goals all came late – first in regulation, then in extra time – and helped give France a 3-3 draw with Argentina in the final.
In the penalty shootout, it seemed destined for Lionel Messi to win his first World Cup at the age of 35, not Mbappe to win his second at 23.
Still, the foundations of France’s national soccer team are solid with just under four years to go until the next World Cup in 2026.
EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE
France outperformed expectations even as the defending champion and the world’s fourth-ranked team.
A run of poor results in the UEFA Nations League, including a home loss in June to Denmark, plus a litany of injuries before and after the squad for Qatar was selected kept high hopes in check.
Then, in the last training session before the flight to Doha, forward Christopher Nkunku was injured by a teammate.
It got worse in Qatar. Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema was forced out of the squad because of an injury and then Lucas Hernandez, the left back in the 2018 team, picked up a season-ending knee injury nine minutes into France’s first game against Australia.
France persevered and got better as the team passed through the knockout rounds – against Poland, England and Morocco.
The record now under France coach Didier Deschamps of two World Cup finals and a quarterfinal, plus a European Championship final and a UEFA Nations League title is truly impressive.
”I’m optimistic about the future,” said Deschamps, who has expertly mixed youth and experience in his teams. ”A lot of players have played in many of those tournaments and have got experience.”
Only four of the 26 players in the squad has turned 30 and Deschamps has made clear he wants to sign the contract extension the French soccer federation says it wants to offer.
This year’s World Cup could be the last for Olivier Giroud, who at 36 took the central striker role left by Benzema and broke Thierry Henry’s all-time France scoring record.
Giroud ended the tournament with four goals and now has 53, two ahead of Henry. Mbappe has 36 and could take the record before the 2026 World Cup.
Benzema turns 35 on Monday, and captain Hugo Lloris has his 36th birthday one week later. At 31, and after a standout World Cup, Antoine Griezmann can look toward another World Cup.
Deschamps is still only 54 and looks far from fatigued in his 11th year on the job.
The next generation of players to revitalize Les Bleus is already at the World Cup.
Several made debuts this year and their progress in Qatar was accelerated by all the injuries and illness to long-established players.
Aurelien Tchouameni was joined by former Monaco teammate Youssouf Fofana in an emergency midfield pairing, and 21-year Arsenal defender William Saliba also got playing time.
If Lloris does step down, 27-year-old Mike Maignan is primed to add to his handful of international games. A domestic league winner at both Lille and AC Milan, Maignan also was injured and missed the World Cup.
Nkunku, now 25, will move to Chelsea next season after four years at Leipzig and impressing in the Champions League.
On March 24, France will host the Netherlands at Stade de France to start one of the toughest European Championship qualifying groups.
A clash between the World Cup finalists and quarterfinalists is the most anticipated game on the schedule when national teams return to action in three months.
Greece, Ireland and Gibraltar are also in the group, which plays through November and will send two teams directly to Euro 2024 in Germany.
France also has available dates in September and October for friendly games against teams from outside Europe.
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