For some years, a joke has made the rounds in Europe. "Google French military victories and hit 'I'm feeling lucky'," it implores.
"Your search – French military victories – did not match any documents," the search engine will return. "Did you mean French military defeats?" (True story. Try it out.)
What is true for the French military isn’t true for the French soccer team. But if, unlike their modern military history, they are capable of winning the occasional battle or even war, they're just as capable of flaming out spectacularly and prematurely.
The French are world soccer's eternal enigma, incapable of deciding on whether they're going to be a powerhouse or laughingstock.
After not qualifying for the 1950 World Cup or making it past the group stage in 1954, France placed third in 1958. Then, after failing to make the knockout rounds twice and not qualifying at all thrice, France came fourth in 1982 and third in 1986. Two more World Cups went by without a French entrant. But it won the next edition, in 1998. In 2002 it crashed out in the group stage. In 2006 it made the final. In 2010 it bombed again.
France's track-record of alternating between dominant and dire is even starker for the European championships. Les Blues came fourth in 1960, didn’t qualify from 1964 through 1980 and then won it all in 1984. They didn’t make it '88, then stumbled in the group four years later. In '96, naturally, they made the semis and won it in 2000. They haven't made it past the quarterfinals since, going out in the group round in 2008.
On rare occasions, France has showed well at consecutive tournaments, most notably winning the World Cup-Euro double in 1998 and 2000. But by and large, the French are at their best when they’re most underestimated, based on underwhelming results in previous tournaments. That's when they tend to surprise and run away with a trophy.
Heading into Euro 2012, France's stock couldn't be much lower. Euro 2008 was a disaster. France went winless and scored just once. The 2010 World Cup was worse. France went winless and scored just once and rebelled against its astrology-consulting coach.
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Yet the French pranced into the upcoming festivities in Poland and Ukraine without major complication. And Les Blues are up to their ears in world class players at every single position – in spite of what Laurent Blanc’s insistence on playing Philippe Mexes in central defense might suggest – led by Franck Ribery, one of the world's best wingers, and Karim Benzema, who bagged 35 goals for Real Madrid last season. Peace has returned to the French camp a year after some unpleasant allegations that the federation was working on a quota-system for non-whites in its academy. Most important of all, nobody is expecting anything out of the French.
Historically, these are all the conditions necessary for France to thrive and achieve beyond what anybody is projecting for them. A friendly draw, pitting France against England, Ukraine and Sweden in a very manageable Group D – the winner of which will face the runner-up of Group C and thus probably avoid Spain in the quarterfinals and, potentially, the Netherlands and Germany until the final – further strengthens their case.
For months now, the talk has been of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands as favorites. The precedent was long since set. Could France win another war?