Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho insisted: “I am not a hero,” after his two goals helped France beat Ukraine 3-0 and qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
It was the first time a team overcome a 2-0 first-leg deficit in an international play-off match.
The mood of euphoria among the fans in the Stade de France after the game was echoed by the reaction of the French press to the result.
‘Respect’ was L’Equipe’s headline over a picture of Karim Benzema and Blaise Matuidi celebrating France’s second goal.
In a front-page editorial — a very rare occurrence for the paper — Fabrice Jouhard called it France’s best result since they reached the 2006 World Cup final.
“Not since then have France played a match of such intensity and with such spirit. Instead we have had seven years of decay, of the team continuing to sink to lower depths, relentlessly digging to limits of mediocrity.”
The paper’s player ratings, notoriously tough, saw Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Valbuena receive 8/10 and Sakho get 9/10.
Significantly, all three players were brought in by coach Didier Deschamps after Friday’s defeat in Kiev.
“Sakho scooped up everything in the air just like Dennis Rodman used to on the basketball court,” wrote So Foot. “With his hungry look, his warrior body, he had the air of someone who just knows. He did not lose a single duel and his gamble to join Liverpool to get a chance for Les Bleus is already a success. After this game, he even showed he could start next summer.”
Sakho started the week as Deschamps’ fourth choice but was helped by Laurent Koscielny’s suspension and Eric Abidal’s poor performance on Friday.
Sakho has now come to represent a new France, one that is focused not on individual talent but on the team. As he put it: “I am not a hero, the team is the hero.”
RMC Radio ran a poll asking if fans had now forgiven the players for their recent bad behaviour in France kit: in the build-up to these play- offs, the spectre of Knysna 2010, when the team went on strike during the World Cup, and the behaviour of Samir Nasri at Euro 2012 (when he swore at journalists after the England game) and even Patrice Evra (who last month hit out at the team’s critics) was never far from the surface.
“This is the time to reconcile the France team with its supporters and even with people who don’t support them,” wrote L’Equipe.
“The genius of Deschamps was to give the keys (French for ‘show faith in’) to Sakho, Pogba, Cabaye, Benzema and Matuidi. This is their moment, this is their time.”
Franck Ribery, who until Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics against Sweden, was favourite to win the Ballon D’Or for the world’s best player, at last repeated his Bayern Munich level of performance for his country. It was his shot that Andriy Pyatov parried for Sakho to open the scoring; his run that was ended by Yevhen Khacheridi, resulting in his red card. And it was his shot that bounced off Sakho for France’s third goal.
“He didn’t score but he was omnipresent,” said So Foot.
France may not go on to win the World Cup, but their fans have now seen what they can do when they play as a team.
Deschamps passed the biggest test of his coaching career, and along the way may have just found a system and starting 11 that could cause a few upsets in Brazil.
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