This World Cup hasn’t been particularly kind to the favorites.
Germany was stunned by Mexico in its opener and entered Wednesday in danger of exiting the tournament in the group stage for the first time. Spain stumbled to two draws in group play and Brazil needed a pair of goals in stoppage time to beat Costa Rica, which doesn’t have a point here.
Then there’s France. Les Bleus haven’t lost in Russia but they haven’t exactly won over many critics, either — especially on Tuesday, when they settled for a 0-0 tie with Denmark in a game neither team seemed especially eager to play.
“If you look at what Spain has been able to do, or Germany, they’ve had a number of difficulties. It’s complicated for everyone,” French coach Didier Deschamps said. “It’s one of the characteristic of this particular World Cup.”
France came into Tuesday’s match having already qualified for the second round; all it needed was a point to win Group C. Denmark didn’t even need that much. With Peru beating Australia in the other group finale, the Danes also would go through no matter what they did.
So they didn’t do much, spending part of the second half passing the ball backward, drawing jeers from many in announced crowd of 78,011 at Luzhniki Stadium.
“What we wanted tonight was to get into the round of 16 and be top of the group,” French midfielder N’Golo Kante said through a translator. “This is what we’ve managed.”
For Denmark, a spot in the second round is a breakthrough. The Danes, who haven’t gotten that far in a World Cup since 2002, will play Croatia next week.
“Our goal was to progress to the last 16,” Danish coach Age Hareide said. “We had a tough group. It was one of the toughest groups, I believe. The team that only got three points, Peru, perhaps played the best in our group.”
For France, who will play Lionel Messi and Argentina in an elimination game Saturday, much more is expected. Four years ago the team made it to the quarterfinals in Brazil, losing 1-0 to eventual champion Germany. And in 2016 it reached the final of the European Championships, taking Portugal to overtime before falling.
Nine players from that Euro team came to Russia as part of a French roster that is loaded. With Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud up front, Paul Pogba and Kante in the midfield and captain Raphael Varane on defense, Deschamps’ team has as good a spine as any in the tournament.
As a result, anything less than the semifinals would be a failure. Yet one-goal wins over Australia and Peru and a lackluster draw with Denmark do not inspire confidence.
Not to worry, said Deschamps, a World Cup champion in 1998. In the knockout round, everything starts over.
“You can tell me there’s room for improvement, but even teams that are top contenders — Brazil, Germany, Spain — it’s not easy for them either.”
It seemed easy for France on Tuesday. Even though Deschamps started the game with more than half his regulars — including Pogba and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris — on the bench, France had possession for more than 60% of the game, had more than twice as many shots as Denmark and put four times as many of its shots on goal.
The fact none of them went in was of little consequence.
“I’m not saying at the end we gave up winning the match,” Deschamps said. “But we got what we wanted. We reached our objective, basically. Now we’re going to be climbing. We’ll be humble, but ambitious as well in order to get to the next stage.”
In a World Cup in which the favorites have done little more than hold serve — at best — in group play, humble and ambitious may just prove to be a winning combination. If not, it could be a long time before France is in this position again, said Willy Sagnol, a World Cup veteran who worked with many of the players on this year’s team when he was sports director for the French soccer institute.
“If we don’t make it this year,” he said, “we might have to wait another 10 years.”