BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) - A country shamed by mutinous footballers four years ago has fallen back in love with its national team, with a revamped France striking the right note with fans in its free-scoring run to the World Cup’s knockout stage.
“In recent matches, we have noticed a love rekindled with the team,” France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said Sunday. “We have done what we needed to do on the pitch to make them happy.”
And it’s no surprise the fans are happy.
France has been one of the World Cup’s most entertaining teams, scoring eight goals in group-stage wins against Honduras and Switzerland with some electrifying attacking football.
A qualification-clinching 0-0 draw with Ecuador can be attributed partly to coach Didier Deschamps rotating his lineup, and has done little to dampen expectations of supporters who in 2000 were celebrating their team being concurrent world and European champions.
Even Bacary Sagna, one of two right backs in Deschamps’ squad, took the unusually bold step of saying it would be a “failure” not to win the tournament.
If squad harmony is any indicator, France could genuinely go all the way.
Aside from lifting the World Cup, Deschamps’ priority in Brazil was avoiding a repeat of the player strike that shamed France at the tournament in South Africa in 2010. It’s clear he has succeeded.
“In the French team, the people talk to each other and I think it is their job to keep that momentum going and to keep that atmosphere together,” he said. “We have spent a lot of time together and the days are long. We have been together 40 days since the first people arrived at Clairefontaine for the training sessions. But they are still smiling, they are happy to be here.
“As long as we are winning matches, I am sure everything will be fine.”
It couldn’t be more different inside the Nigeria squad that will take on France in the last 16 on Monday. Player discontentment over bonus payments that has swirled around most of the African countries in Brazil has arrived back at the doorstep of the Nigerians.
They say everything has been resolved - it required intervention from Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan to get players back to training - and Deschamps shrugged off Nigeria’s problems. “For them, I don’t think it is a very unusual situation,” the France coach said. “I’m not saying it is part of the culture but it happened before this World Cup.”
It is hardly the ideal build-up to one of Nigeria’s biggest ever matches but the African side is likely to have one thing going in its favor - the conditions for the match at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia.
Temperatures are expected to reach 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) and the humidity, while nothing compared to that in Manaus and Cuiaba at this World Cup, could make things uncomfortable.
“Nigeria players are more accustomed to the heat than we are, even though a lot of their players play in Europe with their clubs,” said Deschamps, who has changed France’s training schedule over the last few days to acclimatize.
“Thirty degrees at 1 p.m. - we are not accustomed to that. When it’s cooler in the evening, you play at a different pace, the intensity is different. Maybe we will manage in a different way but I’m not sure how the bodies will react. We saw yesterday, whether it was Brazil or Chile, the players had serious trouble.”
Deschamps said France’s attacking approach may also change because of the “do or die” nature of the knockout stage, while Lloris said he was “extremely well prepared” for the eventuality of a penalty shootout.
A decision on the availability of Mamadou Sakho, who has been nursing a left hamstring injury, will be made late Sunday. Laurent Koscielny is in line to replace Sakho and line up alongside Raphael Varane at center back.
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