The most difficult thing to do in a World Cup isn’t winning the title. It’s repeating as the titlist.
Eight countries have won a World Cup, six of them more than once. Yet only Brazil and Italy have won two in a row. No team, though, has successfully defended a title in six decades.
That’s the challenge facing France in Qatar, where Les Bleus moved a step closer to history Sunday by pushing aside Poland 3-1 in the round of 16. The goals came from — who else? — Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe, who have accounted for eight of France’s nine scores in this tournament.
For Mbappe, Sunday’s brace was his second of the World Cup and left him leading the competition with five goals in four games, making him the favorite for both the tournament’s Gold Ball (best player) and Golden Boot (top scorer) — neither of which Mbappe said he cares about.
“The only objective for me is to win the World Cup [and] now to win the next game,” Mbappe said. “I came here to win the World Cup, I didn’t come here to win the Golden Boot or Golden Ball.”
Now the path forward grows harder, with France facing England, the fifth-ranked team in the world and the runner-up in the most recent European Championship, in Saturday’s quarterfinals. How far France goes, coach Didier Deschamps said, might depend on Mbappe.
“He’s special,” Deschamps said. “He didn’t have his best match today. He knows that. But he can change a match in a moment. France needed a great Kylian Mbappe tonight and it got one.”
France is enjoying a soccer renaissance, although it isn’t totally home grown. More than half the players on the team’s World Cup roster are of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, as were eight of the 14 who appeared in the World Cup final four years ago.
Mbappe is part Cameroonian, part Algerian. Defender Jules Kounde is half Beninese, Dayot Upamecano’s family is from Guinea-Bissau. Forward Ousmane Dembele is Mauritanian, Senegalese and Malian.
The diversity is a product of the country’s colonial past, when the tricolore flew over much of northwest Africa. Many of the people there still speak French, have strong cultural ties to the country and, frequently, immigrate to France. While the soccer program has benefited, that hasn’t always gone swimmingly.
“When you win you’re a French player, when you lose you are a Senegalese player,” Patrice Evra, who was born in Senegal, grew up in Paris and appeared in 81 games for the French national team, told the Sun newspaper.
Zinedine Zidane, who was born in Marseille, was viewed as a foreigner by many French because of his Algerian roots. That changed only after TV cameras caught him crying while singing the national anthem after the country’s World Cup victory in 1998.
France has faced different issues in this World Cup, with injuries having forced it to start the tournament without some key players — forward Karim Benzema, midfielders Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Boubacar Kamara, and defender Presnel Kimpembe. As a result, Deschamps’ side hasn’t looked like the well-oiled machine it was four years ago in Russia.
France trailed for just seven of 630 minutes in 2018. It trailed for more than twice as long in its first game here and lost in the group stage for the first time in 12 years. In Russia, it rode Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, who had four goals each. This time it’s been Giroud and Mbappe, who hooked up on France’s first goal Sunday.
With time running out in the first half, Mbappe pushed a pass into the box for Giroux, whose perfectly timed run won him a step on Polish defender Jakub Kiwior. Giroux’s first touch was a left-footed chip that caught Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny going the wrong way, allowing the ball to roll in at the far post.
The goal was Giroux’s 52nd in international play, breaking a tie with Thierry Henry as France’s all-time leading scorer. Mbappe doubled the lead at the end of a counter in the 74th minute after taking a feed from Dembele, who cut inside from the right flank to find Mbappe with time and space on the left edge of the box. The Paris Saint-Germain star made good use of both, waiting for Szczesny to commit before drilling a right-footed shot high into the left corner.
The goal was Mbappe’s eighth in 11 World Cup games, second on France’s all-time list, but he wasn’t done, adding another goal from nearly the same spot in stoppage time, his 12th goal in his last 10 games for club and country.
“No one knows how to stop Mbappe in the form he’s in right now,” said Polish coach Czesław Michniewicz, who predicted the French player would pick up the mantle left behind when Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi retire.
“I think Mbappe will be the best player for many years,” he said.
Poland and star striker Robert Lewandowski were seconds from being held scoreless for a third time in four games when a handball penalty on Upamecano deep in stoppage time set up a penalty kick. French keeper Hugo Lloris stopped the first try but Lewandowski’s odd stutter-step approach drew him off his line early. Lewandowski, given a second chance, ditched the stutter step and sent the ball to the back of the net on the final touch of the game.