Just over 12 months ago, France arrived at the rearranged European Championships as favorites to add continental glory to the World Cup they won in Russia in 2018.
Didier Deschamps had a talented squad that still included a large part of the group that delivered the World Cup. It was hoped that continuity would pave the way for greater success.
On paper, however, their group looked quite difficult. The first phase of the competition saw tough tests with Portugal and Germany, mammoth battles normally saved for the nerve-wracking backdrop of knockout football.
Les Bleus also played Hungary and while you might think they would be the group’s whipping boys, they played two of their three group games (including against the French) at their raucous National Stadium in Budapest.
The first signs of dissatisfaction within the France squad appeared after the pre-season friendly against Bulgaria, where Kylian Mbappe was angered by Olivier Giroud’s comments regarding the quality of service he is receiving.
Giroud’s post-match interview with L’Equipe sparked a feud between the ex-Chelsea striker and Mbappe, in which he said: “They say I haven’t been seen much but maybe we could have found each other better.”
Mbappe was understood to be furious at Giroud’s comments and although the veteran striker claimed the remark wasn’t just aimed at him, the PSG star demanded he call a press conference to lay out his side of the story.
Despite Giroud’s repeated claims that the comment was not directed at him, Mbappe was unable to contain his anger, to the chagrin of veteran players such as Steve Mandanda, Hugo Lloris and Moussa Sissoko who had reportedly grown tired of seeing the 23-year-old’ pout’.
They managed to put the bad blood aside (for now) and won their opener against Germany 1-0 thanks to a Mats Hummels own goal and it looked like Deschamps’ side had made their mark for the rest of the competition .
But then more cracks appeared. France struggled to cope with the intensity of Hungary and went down 1-0 in Budapest thanks to a superb lone goal from Attila Fiola.
The French struggled to get back into the game while the hosts – buoyed by home support – fell further and further back to defend their lead.
Antoine Griezmann eventually found a way but there was no dramatic winner as the French limped to a 1-1 draw which would mean all four sides could advance in the third and final round of play.
Karim Benzema – back with the national team after a long exile – scored twice at half-time to nullify Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener against Portugal, the reigning champions.
All four sides in Group F changed positions frequently that afternoon but despite Ronaldo getting a second, France managed to hold on to a point that ensured they were top of the group.
More off-field issues surfaced during the tournament, most notably players’ annoyance with their hotel facilities and family restrictions.
While countries like England, Italy and Spain played the majority of their games in their home countries, France had to travel to Munich, Budapest and Bucharest for their games.
As a result, players had no base camp to settle in and were dissatisfied with their accommodation, particularly in Budapest, where they stayed at the Marriott Hotel.
Pogba reportedly asked the squad to stay 50 kilometers away in Gardony at a facility overlooking a lake. However, the French stayed at the Marriott, where they reportedly felt trapped because the bedroom windows could not be opened.
The squad was also said to have been disappointed that they were unable to see their families for much of the tournament.
They argued that the Belgian and Spanish teams could spend time with loved ones, but the French Football Federation turned down their requests on the grounds that it would have health implications due to the Covid blister protocols.
As relations within the squad grew strained behind the scenes, it eventually spilled over onto the pitch, where France’s hopes of lifting the title in a remarkable Round of 16 defeat against Switzerland have been dashed.
Haris Seferovic headed the Swiss in front and the underdog also saved a penalty that could have made it 2-0. France came back and the grandiose Benzema scored twice before Paul Pogba gave them a 3-1 lead with a screamer.
Who knows how far France would have gotten if they had persevered. In a dramatic final 10 minutes, Seferovic clinched his second goal before substitute Mario Gavranovic equalized at the last minute to send the game into overtime.
Mbappe, who failed to score throughout the tournament, missed some great chances to win in extra time and Giroud had a header in the final minute as the game went to penalties.