The ghosts of World Cups past haunt France as they attempt the unprecedented on Tuesday.
Two goals down from the away leg of their qualifying play-off against Ukraine, they are regularly reminded that a bleak anniversary has just past, 20 years since France contrived, with successive home defeats, to turn the near-certainty of reaching the finals in the United States into a shock failure to do so.
Bad memories of the disastrous events in South Africa 2010 are suddenly vivid, too, as a country which began the new millennium at the absolute peak of the international hierarchy confronts the very real possibility it will miss out on Brazil 2014.
Few major football nations, counting back over the past five World Cups, chart such a range of highs and lows as France. They have evolved into Europe’s most enigmatic national side, the beneficiaries of a high-quality talent-factory on the one hand, repeatedly brittle as a collective on the other.
Tense play-offs are nothing new. Four years ago, in the Stade de France, they were involved in a notorious one, against the Republic of Ireland, whose outcome was partly shaped by a handball unseen by the referee from Thierry Henry which led to a key French goal.
At the finals, further indignity: The striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home after a confrontation with Raymond Domenech, the coach. The remaining 22 players went on strike, the so-called mutiny of Knysna, refusing to train. France returned home to derision from their public.
The highs? Soaring ones. Didier Deschamps, the current coach, enjoyed the defining moment of his career as captain of France, the only French skipper to have lifted the World Cup trophy.
France’s victory in Paris, 3-0 against Brazil in the 1998 final, represents the most emphatic margin of any final since 1970.
And France have shown that home advantage was not the only force that can propel them a long way. In 2006, a World Cup final would mark the great Zinedine Zidane’s last match as a professional.
It finished prematurely for him, with a red card for butting Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the chest, a prelude to defeat for the French, yet they finished second only by the narrowest of margins, a loss in a penalty shoot-out.
One gold medal and one silver from the past four World Cups ought to cast France as true heavyweights. Yet in 2002 and 2010, they were dreadful, as poor on the field in South Korea as the Knysna renegades would be in South Africa.
Both times, France gained a single point from three games, home before the knockout phase.
It is a pattern that defies explanation. Go back farther and the wild graph of France’s World Cup saga dips as low as it may well do by the end of tonight.
Deschamps knows keenly what failure to qualify feels like. He was playing at the Parc des Princes on the November night in 1993 when Les Bleus suffered the worst collapse of all.
Going into the last two qualifying matches, both at home, France had led a group from which the top two were both guaranteed a ticket to USA ’94.
They were still on course even after a shock home loss to Israel; they remained on course at 1-1 in Paris in the 90th minute of the last group game, against Bulgaria. A careless concession of possession by winger David Ginola and a Bulgarian strike on the counter-attack extinguished the dream.
Ginola was vilified thereafter and cited as the guiltiest Frenchman by the coach Gerard Houllier.
Deschamps is not the type to point fingers emotionally if his players cannot reverse a deficit this evening against a canny and skilled Ukraine. But others will.
One of the regular complaints of the current French squad is the volume of criticism aimed at them by the now-retired members of the glorious 1998 squad who now work as media pundits. Patrice Evra last month described one, Bixente Lizarazu, as “a parasite”. Evra’s starting place, and Samir Nasri’s, are among those most heavily questioned after disappointing individual showings in the Kiev leg.
Deschamps must make at least one alteration to his side, with defender Laurent Koscielny suspended after his red card on Friday. Real Madrid’s Rafael Varane and Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho — or both — stand by for promotion.
The main change the coach must affect, Deschamps admits, is to the enigmatic team’s self-belief and aggression.
“The possibility of turning things around is very real,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if our chances seem small, big or average. The fact is our chance is there, so we must take it.”
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