France determined not to lose World Cup final as they did Euro 2016
MOSCOW -- It was two years ago, almost to the day. France were in the final of "their" European Championship at home against Portugal. Four days before that, they beat Germany, the World Champions, 2-0 in Marseille. The Euros were theirs, but the reality couldn't have been any different.
As in 1984, in the same competition, and as in 1998, in the World Cup, Les Bleus were going to win the competition they organised. However, the game on July 10 against Portugal didn't go according to plan. France lost, and two years later, they have another chance to exact revenge, make sure the same mistakes are not made, and that the outcome is different.
Blaise Matuidi probably sounds like a broken record in the build-up to Sunday's clash, but he won't care. Since the win against Belgium on Tuesday, he has been repeating the same things to his teammates every day. "Nothing is done. We haven't won anything yet. We have one more game to go," he says.
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Like the other eight players (Paul Pogba, Hugo Lloris, Samuel Umtiti, N'Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Adil Rami and Steve Mandanda) who were involved in the Euro 2016 final and are still in the squad today, Matuidi has learned the lessons of what went wrong in 2016 and is transmitting it to the rest of the current squad.
"There is a lot to learn from 2016, and we need to use the experience from that final and pass it on to the ones who were not there, because most of this squad was not there. The context was different. In 2016, we played our semifinal on the Thursday against Germany, with the final on Sunday. We put so much efforts to beat Germany and we lost in extra time against Portugal," said Lloris.
"This time, we have more time to recover, as we played on a Tuesday."
Unlike two years ago, when their semifinal win against the Germans felt like the peak of the tournament, the French players are staying focused.
"We were too euphoric after beating Germany. It felt like it was the final and that we had won it. We thought the Euro was done, that it was ours even before playing against Portugal," says Giroud. "We got complacent two years ago. Not this time. We are happy we are in the final, but it is a different feeling. We know the job is not done yet."
Samuel Umtiti has only played three big tournaments in his young career. He won the U-20 World Cup in 2013 and reached two finals in 2016 and 2018. He doesn't want to lose them both. "We are keeping our feet well on the ground. We are not getting carried away this time. We know what we did wrong two years ago," admits the Barcelona centre-half.
France will not underestimate Croatia like they did with Portugal, and if anything, the defeat in 2016 will not be an issue psychologically going into Sunday's final; it will be an incentive.
"The semifinal against Germany felt like we had won the final. We thought Portugal was a foregone conclusion. That was our mistake. Trust me, this time we won't make the same mistake," adds Pogba. "We will use what happened two years ago. We will give everything and be strong to win it this time."
The Manchester United midfielder was the first one to talk to his teammates in the dressing room after the semifinal win over Belgium. "We can't do like two years ago. There is one more game to go. We are not finished here. We stay calm, we win it and then we enjoy," he shouted to his teammates.
"Yes, we are repeating this all the time since Tuesday," said Matuidi on Friday morning in a news conference. "This is a different squad, younger, with more insouciance. And it is positive. We let ourselves down two years ago. It won't happen again."
As Lloris reiterates, "This is the most important game of our lives."
The France captain has been excellent since the start of the competition, without a doubt the best goalkeeper in this World Cup, answering his critics through his leadership and form.
"We are here to give our best and enjoy it as much as possible. It is a fantastic competition, and it is a privilege to be playing it and to be representing our country. Each of us has a job to do. We all have to help the team. I am trying to do my bit and the others do the same," he tells ESPN.
Lloris doesn't want the praise with one game to go, so his teammates will offer it for him. "He has been so impressive. He has one save or two to make per game, and he makes them. That's why he is the best. He stays focused all the time, and when we need him, he is there," said Giroud.
By Sunday night, the world will know if Les Bleus truly are a changed team.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.