World Cup: Group D favourites France will hope to shake off final curse

France's midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni (second from left) during a training session in Paris on Sept 21, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Since winning their maiden World Cup on home soil in 1998, Les Bleus have alternated between delirium and disaster at the tournament.

Their last two trips to the final have been followed by group-stage exits at the subsequent edition.

There are ominous signs that a third such implosion is possible.

Injuries to key players; poor recent form; explosive reports of sexual impropriety and cover-ups by France Football Federation president Noel le Graet and staff; and allegations of witchcraft initiated by Paul Pogba on teammate Kylian Mbappe all provide an ominous backdrop to Qatar 2022.

With the last three reigning champions exiting at the group stage, France seem as likely to become the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil in 1962 as they are to suffer an early exit.

Les Bleus have won just one of their last six matches and finished with a woeful five points from six Nations League games.

They also suffered a disappointing Euro 2020 last-16 knockout by Switzerland on penalties.

Mike Maignan, arguably their best goalkeeper, is absent and, up front, Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema, who has 37 international goals, has played just 26 minutes since Oct 19 owing to a muscle injury.

But the biggest worry is in the engine room, after first-choice central midfielders N’Golo Kante and Pogba were ruled out through injury.

Their heirs apparent are promising Real Madrid duo Aurelien Tchouameni, 22, and Eduardo Camavinga, 19, but their performances as a pairing suggest it may be one tournament too soon for them.

Explosive Danes

Not since the Danish Dynamite sides at Euro 1984 and World Cup 1986 have Denmark threatened to explode at a major tournament.

Group C rivals France seem wary of that, with Deschamps signalling he has “a lot of respect” for the Danes.

His opposite number Kasper Hjulmand is a tactical chameleon who has forged a team who can seamlessly switch systems and style in-game and from match to match, making them difficult to read and combat.

No big gulf for Tunisians

While his African contemporaries have sides stocked with Europe-based players, there will be an element of “home” advantage for Tunisia in Qatar.

Jalel Kadri has coached extensively in the region and picked a squad with a clutch of Middle East-based players, such as captain Youssef Msakni, who plays for Al-Arabi in Doha.

Adding to the Eagles of Carthage’s “home comforts”, Aymen Sassi, their fan leader in Qatar, told Reuters nearly 35,000 Tunisians are residing in the host nation.

Together with Tunisians from neighbouring Gulf states, they will come out in force.

Their hopes will likely be determined by their side’s defence. Before losing to Brazil in September, Tunisia had kept clean sheets in 27 of 52 matches since 2019 and conceded only 29 goals in 30 matches.

Socceroos’ off-pitch impact

Australia have reached five straight World Cups but this looks to be the weakest squad yet: just two of them play in Europe’s Big Five leagues – Ajdin Hrustic of Hellas Verona and Cadiz’s Awer Mabil, both of whom are not regulars.

But they retain that trademark Aussie larrikin streak.

This was evident in goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne’s distracting dance moves during their play-off shoot-out win against Peru and his surreptitious disposal of opposite number Pedro Gallese’s water bottle cum penalty-taker cheat sheet over the advertising boards.

Considering The Lucky Country is no longer fortunate enough to be able to call upon talents in the mould of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell or Tim Cahill, maybe Australia’s biggest contribution to Qatar 2022 will be off the pitch.

The Socceroos in October became the first team to collectively criticise the hosts’ human rights record and treatment of migrant workers.

Group D Fixtures

Denmark v Tunisia (Nov 22, 9pm)
France v Australia (Nov 23, 3am)
Tunisia v Australia (Nov 26, 6pm)
France v Denmark (Nov 26, 11.59pm)
Australia v Denmark (Nov 30, 11pm)
Tunisia v France (Nov 30, 11pm)

Team factfiles


Last World Cup: Group stage
Best World Cup performance: Group stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2018)
Fifa ranking: 30th
Record in qualifying: 5 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss

The coach: Jalel Kadri

The 50-year-old former assistant coach got his first shot at being the main man when then-Tunisia coach Mondher Kebaier contracted Covid-19 at the Africa Cup of Nations in January.

Kadri responded by leading the Eagles of Carthage to an upset win over Nigeria, then the tournament’s form team, in the last 16. This despite Tunisia missing seven players through Covid.

When Kebaier was sacked following a quarter-final exit, Kadri was asked to step up and he duly guided them to Qatar 2022 before winning the Kirin Cup invitational tournament in Japan.

The star: Wahbi Khazri

Tunisia’s Wahbi Khazri is second on Tunisia’s all-time scoring chart with 24 goals in 71 matches.  PHOTO: REUTERS

The versatile attacker is second on Tunisia’s all-time scoring chart with 24 goals in 71 matches.

Former coach Kebaier highlighted the 31-year-old’s importance, saying: “Khazri has been a big asset... He has always been active in terms of goals and assists.”

Khazri said he had “wished” to draw Les Bleus, adding: “I was born in France and I understand the importance of this match for the two countries.

“It will be a great challenge.”


Last World Cup: Group stage
Best World Cup performance: Round of 16 (2006)
Fifa ranking: 38th
Record in qualifying: 13 wins, 4 draws, 3 losses

The coach: Graham Arnold

Coach Graham Arnold had a roller-coaster qualifying campaign, with Australia winning their first 10 games. PHOTO: AFP

The 59-year-old is in his second spell as Socceroos coach, having previously been caretaker from 2006 to 2007. He also had stints as assistant to Frank Farina, Guus Hiddink and Pim Verbeek.

He had a roller-coaster qualifying campaign, with Australia winning their first 10 games before stumbling into the play-offs with just one win in their final seven matches. That patchy form, together with Arnold being fined for breaching Covid-19 protocols, saw calls for him to be replaced before the play-offs.

He stayed on and delivered qualification but has since said he is open to offers after the tournament.

The star: Aaron Mooy

Australia’s Aaron Mooy can play as a No. 6 or No. 8. PHOTO: REUTERS

One of a small school of Socceroos to have been a regular in a Big Five European league. He was Huddersfield Town’s record £8 million (S$12.7 million) signing in 2017 and arguably the star player during their English Premier League sojourn before joining Brighton & Hove Albion.

The midfielder can play as a No. 6 or No. 8 and, despite the 32-year-old’s advancing years, his current club coach at Celtic and former international boss Ange Postecoglou is still convinced he can deliver on the world stage.

He said: “If he’s in good physical condition, I know Aaron can certainly make an impact and be a big influence.”


Last World Cup: Round of 16
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals (1998)
Fifa ranking: 10th
Record in qualifying: 9 wins, 0 draws, 1 loss

The coach: Kasper Hjulmand

Kasper Hjulmand’s 67.65 per cent winning ratio from 34 matches is among the best in the nation’s history. PHOTO: REUTERS

After Age Hareide’s more prosaic stylings, Hjulmand has brought Denmark greater attacking swagger and a sequence of impressive results.

His 67.65 per cent winning ratio from 34 matches is among the best in the nation’s history. The 50-year-old led De Rod-Hvide (The Red and Whites) to the semi-finals of Euro 2020; a near-flawless Qatar 2022 qualification campaign (their only loss was in a dead rubber); and home-and-away Nations League victories over World Cup holders France.

Hjulmand’s handling of talisman Christian Eriksen’s heart attack at Euro 2020 led Danish newspaper B.T. to opine: “The national coach has been honest, vulnerable and at the same time tough if needed... Hjulmand has shown the way for all other leaders in this country.”

The star: Christian Eriksen

Since his return to the international scene in March, Christian Eriksen has scored thrice and assisted once in eight games. PHOTO: REUTERS

Denmark managed to reach the last four of the Euro without the 30-year-old playmaker following his dramatic collapse in their opener due to a cardiac arrest, but they are undoubtedly a better team when he is in the side.

Since his return to the international scene in March, he has scored thrice and assisted once in eight games. After a win against France, Hjulmand called him “the X-factor that all teams need”, adding: “That man cannot be stressed on a football pitch. He is so calm, so smart.”

France coach Didier Deschamps seemed to agree, noting: “He has always had the ability to score goals, to make other players score.”


Last World Cup: Winners
Best World Cup performance: Winners (1998, 2018)
Fifa ranking: 4th
Record in qualifying: 5 wins, 3 draws, 0 losses

The coach: Didier Deschamps

France coach Didier Deschamps during the press conference in Paris on Nov 9, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Part of an exclusive trio – alongside Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer – who have won the World Cup as both a player and coach.

Not bad for someone compatriot Eric Cantona derisively dubbed “the water-carrier” during his playing days, despite winning the Champions League twice, among a host of other trophies.

His coaching record is not too shabby either, a Champions League final with unfancied Monaco in 2004, a European Championship final with France in 2016, before triumphs at World Cup 2018 and the 2021 Nations League.

The star: Kylian Mbappe

France’s Kylian Mbappe has netted more goals than anyone in Europe’s Big Five leagues. PHOTO: REUTERS

The youngest player to score in a World Cup final since Pele, Mbappe has netted more goals than anyone in Europe’s Big Five leagues bar Robert Lewandowski since joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.

However, there have been issues over his outsized influence at both PSG and Les Bleus as well as his lack of diplomacy.

In May, the 23-year-old rankled an entire continent when he remarked: “In South America, football is not as advanced as in Europe. And that’s why, when you look at the last World Cups, it’s always the Europeans who win.”

His comments were slammed by Brazil boss Tite, PSG teammate and Argentina legend Lionel Messi and even former France coach Raymond Domenech.

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