SAINT-DENIS, France: With just two months before France begin defending the World Cup, the mood among the team is in stark contrast to the celebrations after beating Croatia in the 2018 final.
Clouds are gathering over coach Didier Deschamps and his side as key players grapple with injuries and personal problems.
Meanwhile, the French Football Federation (FFF) is at odds with its biggest star over image rights and its president is facing accusations of inappropriate behavior.
All of this threatens to derail France’s election campaign in Qatar.
More immediately, they head into the final games ahead of this week’s World Cup against Austria and Denmark in the UEFA Nations League with a reduced squad.
Paul Pogba, a goalscorer in the 4-2 win over Croatia in 2018, is among the players who are sidelined.
As the Juventus star struggles to recover from knee surgery, he has filed a complaint with Italian prosecutors, saying he is the target of a €13 million ($13 million) extortion scheme.
Pogba’s brother Mathias is one of five people charged and arrested in the case.
Paul Pogba reportedly told investigators he was effectively kidnapped by childhood acquaintances and threatened with assault rifles by two men in assault rifles, who accused him of failing to help them financially.
The ex-Manchester United midfielder also said the blackmailers wanted to discredit him by claiming he asked a medicine man to put a spell on another 2018 World Cup hero, Kylian Mbappe.
“It’s his word against his brother’s. I will trust my teammate,” Mbappe recently said of Pogba and those claims.
“I think it’s also in the interests of the national team that there’s a big tournament coming up.”
Mbappe himself is embroiled in a dispute with the FFF which could hurt the squad’s morale.
On Monday, their meeting at Clairefontaine Castle, an hour’s drive from Paris, was marred by Mbappe’s refusal to attend a photoshoot because the FFF was unwilling to alter an agreement on players’ image rights.
The Paris Saint-Germain superstar previously boycotted a shoot and on Monday the federation reacted quickly, pledging to “revise the agreement as soon as possible”.
Mbappe’s representatives insisted that the matter “obviously does not call into question his total commitment and determination to contribute to the collective success of the national team”.
Meanwhile, the experienced 80-year-old president of the FFF is in the line of fire.
Noel Le Graet was invited to a meeting with the country’s sports minister, Amelie Oudea-Castera, last week. The government then announced that it would initiate an audit of the association.
This comes after So Foot magazine published allegations that the FFF was suffering from organizational problems and that some former employees claimed they had been treated inappropriately.
The association has taken legal action against the magazine.
“It’s not the quietest atmosphere I know,” admitted Deschamps. “But it doesn’t worry me. My staff and I are focused on what’s happening on the pitch.”
Still, his squad will be without Hugo Lloris, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema as well as Pogba for the upcoming games.
Only five players from the 2018 final are involved, including recalled veteran Olivier Giroud.
Among the other members of the 2018 squad, Benjamin Mendy is on trial in England over multiple alleged sex offenses that could end his career.
Mendy last played for France in November 2019. Les Bleus left Euro 2020 in the last 16 in Switzerland but bounced back and won the Nations League last year.
That latter win showed the benefits of Benzema’s recall – he himself was recently given a suspended sentence for complicity in blackmailing a team-mate.
The Real Madrid star is absent with a hamstring injury but the absence might not be a bad thing, forcing Deschamps to play for rising stars like William Saliba, Aurelien Tchouameni, Eduardo Camavinga and Christopher Nkunku.
Whoever is in this week, France needs results.
With a defeat against Austria, they will be relegated from their Nations League group on Thursday.
Even if they win, they might need three points against Denmark, one of their next World Cup opponents.