World Cup 2014: France national soccer team guide

A BLEU REVIVAL?

France haven’t exactly fallen on hard times, but Les Bleus haven’t necessarily lit the world of soccer on fire of late, either. Since their march to the 2006 World Cup final, France have been far from elite and they flirted with disaster in the 2014 qualifying campaign, falling behind Ukraine 2-0 in the first leg of a playoff before winning 3-0 in the second leg to earn their fifth straight World Cup berth. But one player who helped them get past Ukraine, Franck Ribery, is lost to a back injury and will not feature in Brazil.

WORLD CUP PROSPECTS

Even without Ribery, France still possess the most pure soccer talent of any team in Group E and they'll hope it materializes in order to clinch a first-place finish. That's because second place in Group E will more than likely set up a date with Argentina, while first place earns them a more familiar, European-heavy corner of the knockout bracket. But France's final group record will ultimately come down to whether their mentality and team spirit is just right. And after the meltdown and infighting in 2010, that's not an easy ask.

GROUP E SCHEDULE

June 15: vs. Honduras, Porto Alegre
June 20: vs. Switzerland, Salvador
June 25: vs. Ecuador, Rio de Janeiro

STARS TO WATCH

Paul Pogba, M, Juventus (pictured left): One of the most talked about central midfielders in all of Europe, the 21 year old is already a fixture at Italian champions Juventus. He covers a ton of ground, but it's what he can do with the ball at his feet that earns him the headlines: crisp passing and stunning long-distance bombs like this one.

Olivier Giroud, F, Arsenal: The big, physical striker is a lightning rod for criticism with both club and country because of his inconsistent scoring. Despite just two goals in qualifying, his club coach at Arsenal believes the Frenchman is one of the best strikers in the English Premier League.

Karim Benzema, F, Real Madrid: One of the maddening talents in the soccer world, partly because of inconsistency and partly because he's overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. But a more mature Benzema flourished in Spain, scoring big goals for Real Madrid in clutch moments during 2014. France will hope he can replicate that good form in Brazil.

THE COACH

Didier Deschamps (right) was a player for France during their last World Cup triumph in 1998 on their home turf. He also became the youngest-ever captain to lead a team to the UEFA Champions League title when he did it with Marseille in 1993. Now he’s the manager tasked with leading Les Bleus into Brazil, a position he very nearly lost when his side narrowly scraped by Ukraine in a playoff qualifier. But after beating Ukraine 3-0 in the second leg on Nov. 19, he said he experienced the “magic of football.”

HOW THEY QUALIFIED

WCQ record: 5-2-1, 17 pts. / 15 GF, 6 GA (second place in Europe’s Group I, beat Ukraine in playoff)

The French didn’t make it easy on themselves, for certain. A loss to Spain (1-0 on March 26, 2012) and then a scoreless draw against lowly Georgia on Sept. 6 put France in a tentative spot as qualification drew to a close in their tough group. And then in a two-game playoff against Ukraine, Les Bleus first fell behind 2-0 after the first leg in Kyiv before a miraculous 3-0 win in Paris on Nov. 19 put them through to the World Cup.

WORLD CUP HISTORY

14th appearance

France’s biggest triumph came in 1998 on their home soil when Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane led them to glory, beating Brazil 3-0 in the championship game. That tournament also featured a drama-filled quarterfinal victory against Italy that was decided on penalties. France had another famous match against Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, an Italian win also on penalties made perhaps more famous, or infamous, for a certain head butt. France placed fourth in both 1982 and ’86 and third in ’58. Their 2010 World Cup ended in the group stage amid controversy.

MLS/USA CONNECTIONS

One of France’s most decorated players is also one of MLS’ elite. New York Red Bulls star Thierry Henry became France’s all-time leading goalscorer in October 2007, surpassing Michel Platini, before finishing his international career in 2010 with 51 goals in 123 appearances for Les Bleus. In MLS he already has 100 goals and led the New York Red Bulls to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield … Long-time France defender Mikaël Silvestre spent a brief time with the Portland Timbers in 2013 before a knee injury cut short his time in MLS … In all, 23 players of French descent have played or are currently playing in MLS … The USMNT last played France on Nov. 11, 2011, losing 1-0 in Paris.