Sunday, June 16, 2024

Euro qualifiers | New dawn for France as Mbappé leads team against Netherlands

New captain, new goalkeeper, new defense, new governance — and major players retired.

It seems like a new dawn for World Cup runner-up France as it begins European Championship qualifying without Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, and with Kylian Mbappé leading the team out at Stade de France against the Netherlands on Friday. Les Bleus then play Ireland in another Group B match at Dublin on Monday.

“The end of several players’ international careers means that the squad is younger,” said coach Didier Deschamps, who picked brothers Khéphren and Marcus Thuram in his first squad since last year’s World Cup. “Obviously we have less experience.”

The Thuram brothers are the sons of famed France defender Lilian Thuram, who played with Deschamps when France won the 1998 World Cup and its second European title in 2000. Their selection gives insight into how Deschamps plans to rebuild.

“We want to have answers for the future while remaining competitive,” he said. “Because our first two games are already difficult, so we have a degree of obligation.”

Forward Marcus Thuram, who played for France at the World Cup, is the elder brother of 21-year-old Nice midfielder Khéphren Thuram, who wants to win his first cap alongside his sibling.

“It’s always been my dream to play alongside him, whether in the back garden or at the highest level,” Khéphren said.

Mbappé, meanwhile, succeeds veteran goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as captain. Lloris and central defender Raphaël Varane retired from international football following the World Cup final defeat to Argentina last December.

Varane’s departure leaves a healthy competition for his spot between Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konaté and Bayern Munich’s Dayot Upamecano. There are new faces, too, with goalkeeper Brice Samba of Lens and Chelsea center back Wesley Fofana called up for the first time.

But the spotlight Friday will be on Mbappé.

His hat trick in the World Cup final propelled him further into football stardom and made it a logical choice for Deschamps when it came to replacing Lloris, France’s record holder with 145 caps.

Varane played the last of his 93 games for Les Bleus against Argentina and, near the end of extra time, he lay down on the side of the field unable to stand.

Varane’s exhaustion summed up how much he gave for France, including winning the World Cup alongside Lloris and Mbappé in 2018. But perhaps Deschamps sensed it was time for an overhaul.

Lloris and Varane took that decision away from him by retiring, and Deschamps has the luxury of being able to count on AC Milan standout Mike Maignan as his No. 1.

The 27-year-old Maignan was outstanding when Milan won the Italian league in 2022.

Benzema was outstanding, too, throughout all of 2022 but left the World Cup injured without kicking a ball.

He has disputed a newspaper interview Deschamps gave explaining what happened when Benzema left Qatar. Deschamps has since refused to answer any further questions about Benzema, who was France’s top scorer at the 2020 European Championship.

Another exile from the national team — and this one is self-imposed — likely spells the end of the Real Madrid star’s international career after 97 caps and 37 goals.

Another prominent French football figure has also gone, but for very different reasons.

Long-serving French football federation president Noël Le Graët, who had a close relationship with Deschamps and renewed his contract in January, resigned three weeks ago. A government audit found he no longer had the legitimacy to lead because of his behavior toward women and his management style.

While France turned the page in different ways, the Dutch start another era under coach Ronald Koeman.

The former Barcelona coach pledged to take the Netherlands back to playing flowing attacking football in his second stint in charge.

Netherlands lost in the World Cup quarterfinals to Argentina.

Sections of the Dutch media were critical of Koeman’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal, for what they perceived as an abrasive and defensive style of play.

Forward Memphis Depay is No. 2 on the Oranje’s all-time leading scorers with 43 goals as he closes in on Robin van Persie’s record of 50.

After facing France, Koeman’s squad plays Gibraltar.

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