Next year, the world’s most-watched sporting event will occur. No, it’s not the Super Bowl. The 2018 FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Russia, will bring together 32 national teams, who will have all earned a spot in the tournament after a three-year qualifying process. The last iteration of the World Cup, held in Brazil in 2014, brought in a total of 3.2 billion viewers over the course of the month-long tournament, with the final alone bringing in a total of 1 billion viewers. Fans from every corner of the planet, in crowded sports bars in Bangkok to rural mountains in Germany, will surely crowd around TVs to get a glimpse of the action.
It’s a bit early to think about it, but soccer aficionados around the world are starting to ask: which nation is going to come out on top? Reigning champion Germany, winner of the recently played Confederations Cup, still holds the top spot on FIFA’s national team rankings and is certainly a threat to repeat. Brazil, the perennial powerhouse of world football, has experienced an emergence of talent, highlighted by superstar Neymar. There are only 10 months left until a ball is kicked off in Russia, but one team filled to the brim with young talent and fused with seasoned veterans seems to be building a strong case to be the favorite for next year’s tournament: France.
The 2006 World Cup saw Zinedine Zidane, one of the greatest players in all of football history, perform his magnificent swan song, taking France to the final. French hearts were, of course, shattered when Italy narrowly beat their beloved national team on penalties, right after Zidane’s infamous head-butt. In the decade since that scandalous game, the heartache has continued for France, as their team lost its flare. Players from the 1998 World Cup Winning squad retired, and Les Bleus began to register only poor performances in international tournaments.
In the 2014 World Cup, France lost to eventual winner, Germany, 1-0 in the quarter-final in a well-fought game. Since then, Les Bleus have only gotten better. In last year’s Euros competition, which was hosted at home, they took revenge on the Germans in the semi-final. Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal could stop the French, shocking them in the final of the tournament. But nonetheless, a new impression of the French national team was forged. Striker Antoine Greizmann, who plays for Atlético Madrid in the Spanish La Liga, took home awards for the tournament’s best player and top goal scorer. Behind him, the rest of the national team only continued to impress, with attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet also taking home all-tournament honors.
A new generation of French talent has taken over the sport. After years of mediocre football on the world’s stage, the French national team has come back in full force. Like the French team that won the World Cup in 1998, next year’s squad is capable of great things.
In the past year since the Euros, an even better crop of young talent has sprung up. Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté was awarded the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award, the most decorated individual accomplishment in the English Premier League. Stars Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé have emerged as the two brightest prospects in the sport, becoming the second and third most expensive players in the world as of this summer. Both were too young to be considered in last year’s tournament. Other players, like Thomas Lemar of Monaco and Adrien Rabiot of Paris Saint-German (PSG), are also starting to turn the heads of fans.
This new generation of players plays for virtually all of Europe’s elite clubs, including the aforementioned PSG, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, and both Manchester sides. The national team that played against Luxembourg combined for an estimated total transfer value of over 1 billion euros. These players are also not only extremely talented but also very young. The last squad that played Luxembourg earlier this month boasted an average age of 26 years old. Despite their youth, France’s ranks are full of experienced players, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris captaining the side. Other players, like Paul Pogba, have also worn the captain’s armband for their respective clubs at some point.
Les Bleus is loaded, possibly at every single position on the pitch. It seems as though they are suffering from an abundance of riches, and coach Didier Deschamps will have to make difficult decisions about who not to take, with talented veterans of the national team like Karim Benzema and Blaise Matuidi at risk of not earning invitations to the 23-man squad.
All this hype is incredibly deserving, even if France has not yet qualified for next year’s tournament. In the year since their runner-up performance at the Euro’s, they have only improved. It’s almost frightening to imagine what the team will look like next year as their stars get another season of experience under their belts. One thing is for certain: France is here to stay. International football’s next greatest dynasty is just getting started.
Tobias Wertime can be reached at email@example.com.