Ask any player in the world, winning the FIFA World Cup is a hard proposition. Only eight teams have clinched the trophy during the 21 editions of the competition, with Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, France, Uruguay, England and Spain writing their names into the history books.
If winning it is hard, then winning back-to-back trophies is truly a test in itself, the magnitude being described best by the two sides that completed the challenge. As the list is short, well, only Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) have ticked the box so far.
Therefore, no team has ever defended their title at the FIFA World Cup in the past 60 years, with Brazil and Argentina coming the closest, making the finals in 2002 and 1990 respectively, after winning the trophy in the previous editions.
A new team is trying to do what transpires as the toughest challenge in the competition – France – as they secured a semi-finals berth at Qatar 2022, after winning the trophy four years ago, in Russia, with a 4-2 win over Croatia.
As the two sides are on separate parts of the bracket, they could potentially meet once again in the final act of the FIFA World Cup, but there is still a long way to go until they really secure that honour.
“We have to savour this moment in the dressing room. It’s a big moment. It’s England. We did a very good job. The French players deserve the credit. We have to prepare for the next battle,” said goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, after France delivered a fatal blow to England, clinching a 2-1 win in the quarter-finals.
It was definitely a huge win for France, who are now only two games removed from becoming back-to-back winners at the FIFA World Cup, despite plenty of challenges coming their way since that final at Russia 2018.
One year ago, at the UEFA EURO 2020, France went out on penalties against Switzerland in the Round of 16, in what seemed to be the swansong of a generation that wrote history.
The chemistry of the team was broken, players were accusing each other of mistakes and even the parents of the players were fighting with them in the media, with a huge backlash coming from the fans.
In the middle of everything stood Didier Deschamps, one of the few men who won the FIFA World Cup both as a player and as a coach, stripped down of any ounce of authority and criticised for losing the locker room altogether.
Fast forward one year, and everything seems to be all right. France came into Qatar 2022 with some moderate expectations, especially after key midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante were missing from the squad that won the title four years ago, due to injuries.
When the Ballon d’Or winner, Karim Benzema, suffered a muscular injury before the start of the competition, during a training session in Qatar, everything seemed to blow to pieces and France’s hand looked weakened, a team overlooked and destined to fail in their attempt to retain their title.
Adding problem after problem instead of solving them must have kept Deschamps – who is likely to step down after Qatar 2022, with Zinedine Zidane touted as the new manager – awake many nights.
But what transpired is that he managed to learn from the previous mistakes, instil new life in the team and make a talented group of players work for each other, as “Les Bleus” are once again a team, not a collection of individuals that fail to comprehend the task at hand.
“Defending the title is very complicated. There’s always a bit of everything, but that’s the reality of very high-level football. When you’re at the very highest level, to win is very difficult, but to maintain it is even more difficult,” said Deschamps for “The Athletic” before the start of the tournament.
Complicated? France beat Australia 4-1 to kick off the tournament and then added a 2-1 win over Denmark. Resting key players, they lost against Tunisia, 0-1, but bounced back with a 3-1 win over Poland in the Round of 16 and a 2-1 win over England in the quarter-finals.
The defence has been shaky at times, but the midfield, with Adrien Rabiot, Aurelien Tchouameni and Antoine Griezmann worked excellently. Pogba and Kante, while extremely talented football players, are afterthoughts now.
“I am not here to have fun. I am here to win,” added Deschamps in his trademark style, one that has earned many critics in France, but has provided the team with the necessary spark to continue winning.
A new challenge follows, against Morocco, a team that has already delivered huge surprises, eliminating Belgium, Spain and Portugal, European teams that France saw as big challengers for the trophy.
“Not many people expected them at this level, but they are there, and it’s not a surprise. They’ve only conceded one goal in five games. They deserve to be there, it’s logical,” added France’s manager.
With only two steps away from history, Deschamps knows this might be his last minute as the France coach. He wants to make them mean something. And, of course, it is not about fun. It is about winning.