Even though many national teams wear a combination of white, red, and blue on their uniforms, none is more successful or respected than France. These three colors, along with the Gallic rooster on their logo and the nickname Les Bleus, are central to France’s national identity. They’ve won two World Cups and two European Championships in their long history. The majority of their success came in four distinct eras: the 1950s, the 1980s, the late 1990s, and the late 2010s.
The France national team was established in 1904, shortly before FIFA was established in the same year (they had, however, participated in the 1900 Olympic Games and won a silver medal). They drew 3-3 in their first official match against Belgium in Brussels. The following year, they defeated Switzerland in front of nearly 500 fans in their first home match at the famous Parc des Princes. This was followed by a string of defeats, including a memorable 0-15 loss to England in 1906.
France struggled with identity issues early in its history. Most of these issues arose due to a disagreement between FIFA and the USFSA, France’s main sports union. These disagreements boiled over just before the 1908 Olympics, resulting in FIFA and the USFSA sending two separate French teams to compete. Denmark eliminated both teams, with France A (controlled by FIFA) falling 1-17 and France B falling 0-9.
Later that year, the CFI (French Interfederal Committee) intervened, stating that FIFA would now be in charge of the national team. The USFSA eventually disbanded after failing to reach a satisfactory agreement, becoming semi-affiliated with the CFI in 1913. Six years later, the CFI became the French Football Federation today. This newfound stability helped the team to some promising results, including a 2-1 victory over England.
Early Exploits in the World Cup
France competed in the first World Cup, which was held in Uruguay in 1930. In their first game, they became the first team in World Cup history to score a goal (courtesy of Lucien Laurent) on their way to a 4-1 victory over Mexico. France was eliminated from the group stage after losing their final two games to Argentina and Chile. The 1934 World Cup was another letdown for France, as they were defeated in the first round by Austria.
Four years later, France had the opportunity to go one step further on their home turf. After automatically qualifying for the competition, they defeated old rivals Belgium 3-1, thanks to two goals from Jean Nicolas. In the quarter-finals, they faced defending champions Italy, who won and defended their title by defeating Hungary in the final. Because of WWII, this was France’s last chance to compete in a World Cup for quite some time.
Hints of Greatness
During the 1950s, France’s first “golden generation” arrived. They quickly transformed into a team that demanded respect from any opponent, led by creative dynamo Raymond Copa and prolific striker Just Fontaine. This team debuted at the 1954 World Cup, where they were unable to advance from their group after a 0-1 loss to Yugoslavia in their opener. They finished their tournament with a 3-2 victory over Mexico.
France breezed through the 1958 World Cup qualifiers, eager to show that their poor showing at the 1954 World Cup was only a temporary setback. Their good form continued in the tournament, as they advanced from their group and defeated Northern Ireland 4-0 en route to the semi-finals against Pelé’s Brazil. They lost 5-2, but won the third-place match against West Germany. Fontaine set a tournament record with 13 goals, which she still holds today.
Les Bleus were one of four nations to reach the final stage of the inaugural European Championship two years later. They were forced to play without Copa and Fontaine, contributing to a shocking 4-5 loss to Yugoslavia. Despite holding a 4-2 lead in the 75th minute, France allowed their opponents to score three goals in less than four minutes, eliminating them from the competition. In the third-place match, they were defeated 0-2 by Czechoslovakia.
Fall from Grace
By the early 1960s, the majority of the golden generation had retired, resulting in a significant drop in both form and results. France qualified for the 1966 World Cup, but going winless in six friendlies prior to the tournament did not inspire much confidence in the team. They finished last in their World Cup group, which included Mexico, Uruguay, and eventual champions England.
The following decade saw France continue its run of poor results, failing to qualify for any major tournaments. During this time, the French Football Federation hired and fired managers regularly, but nothing seemed to work. This continued until the appointment of Michel Hidalgo in 1976 when a talented new generation led by midfield maestro Michel Platini arrived.
The Platini Exhibition
Following a group stage exit in 1978, France returned with a vengeance four years later. France cruised to a semi-final match against West Germany, thanks to the carré magique of Platini, Tigana, Giresse, and Fernández commanding the midfield. West Germany returned from a 1-3 deficit in overtime to win the game on penalties in one of the best World Cup matches in history. France was then defeated 2-3 by Poland in the third-place match.
Their incredible run continued at Euro 1984, their first European Championship in 24 years. This time, the carré magique was in full swing, with Tigana and Fernández as deep-lying playmakers, Giresse on the wings, and Platini behind the striker. Despite stiff competition, France won all five matches at the tournament, securing their first major trophy. Platini’s nine goals remain a competition record.
Despite Hidalgo’s departure following the Euro, France remained a favorite to win the 1986 World Cup. However, injuries to Platini and Giresse – both of whom played despite injections – significantly blow their World Cup hopes. After edging out defending champions Italy and Brazil in the knockout stages, Les Bleus were defeated 0-2 by West Germany in the semi-finals. They tied their best-ever third-place finish in the competition with a 4-2 victory over Belgium.
Platini took over as France’s manager after his playing career ended in 1988. He quickly added talented youngsters like Laurent Blanc, Eric Cantona, and Didier Deschamps to a veteran core, but the results were mixed. France exited the Euro 1992 group stage after going unbeaten in 19 consecutive matches and nearly three years. Platini resigned as manager of the team soon after.
The 1994 World Cup qualifiers seemed like a good chance to get back on track, especially after the team went on a seven-match unbeaten streak. However, a shocking 2-3 loss to Israel meant that France needed to remain unbeaten in their final match against Bulgaria, the only team capable of catching them. They held a 1-1 tie until the final 30 seconds when Kostadinov scored a counterattack goal to eliminate France from the competition.
After failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row, the FFF turned over a new leaf by appointing Aimé Jacquet as manager. France easily qualified for the Euro 1996 with Jacquet at the helm and the young Bordeaux star Zinedine Zidane in the team. They went on to win the group and knock out the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, but they were defeated in a penalty shootout by the Czech Republic.
Les Bleus were among the favorites to win the 1998 World Cup as the tournament’s hosts. France advanced to the round of 16 after cruising through an easy group that included Denmark, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, thanks to a golden goal from Blanc. They then defeated Italy and Croatia to advance to the finals against Brazil. France won their first World Cup with two goals from Zidane and a late finish from Petit.
Despite the fact that Jacquet left the team on the night of the victory, France was still in control of the Euro 2000. They had little trouble getting past their group with Zidane in his prime and a terrifying strike line led by David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry. They went on to beat Spain and Portugal on their way to the final against Italy, where they equalized in stoppage time and won on a golden goal from Trezeguet.
The End of a Dynasty
France was brutally reminded that they were not invincible during the 2002 World Cup. They became the second World Cup holder to be eliminated in the first round after Brazil in 1966, after failing to score in any of their group matches. This was followed by another poor showing at Euro 2004 when they were defeated 0-1 in the quarter-finals by eventual champions Greece.
The 2006 World Cup presented a chance for redemption, and France appeared determined to seize it. Despite struggling in the first round, they turned it on in the knockout stages, defeating Spain, Brazil, and Portugal. Italy was their opponent in the final once more. France was dealt a fatal blow this time when Zidane was sent off for headbutting Materazzi in the chest. The game went to penalties, which Italy won 5-3.
With Zidane’s retirement, Les Bleus were left without a true leader on the field. This contributed to a string of poor results, including group stage exits at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. The Euro 2012 was an improvement, but only a slight one. They advanced from their group but could not hold off eventual champions Spain.
Deschamps Assumes Command
Didier Deschamps took over as manager of the team shortly after Euro 2012. Deschamps was expected to bring a winning mentality as the former captain of the teams that won the 1998 World Cup and the Euro 2000. The 2014 World Cup was his first tournament as manager, and the early results were encouraging. France advanced from their group and defeated Nigeria in the round of 16, but fell to eventual champions Germany 0-1 in a nailbiter.
Deschamps and his increasingly younger squad won another title at Euro 2016. France demonstrated their mental strength as the host team by advancing from a difficult group and overturning a deficit against Ireland in the round of 16. They destroyed Iceland 5-2 and outlasted Germany 2-0, but Portugal proved too difficult to overcome. Despite dominating most of the game, they were defeated in extra time by an Eder goal.
The World Cup’s Second Edition
Deschamps’ generation faced another major test two years later, at the 2018 World Cup. Expectations were high once again, as they had previously cruised through their qualifying group with 23 points and only one defeat in ten games. Nonetheless, their group performances left a lot to be desired. Their match against Denmark ended in a goalless 0-0 draw after two uninspiring victories over Australia (2-1) and Peru (1-0).
The knockout stages seemed to feature an entirely different France team. After defeating Argentina 4-3 in one of the tournament’s best games, they defeated Uruguay and Belgium on their way to the finals. After another strong performance, this time a 4-2 victory over Croatia, France became the sixth team to win multiple World Cups. Mbappe and Griezmann won the Best Young Player and Silver Boot awards, respectively, with four goals each.