FEATURE | Remembering France’s Swedish Nightmare

32 years ago Didier Deschamps was part of a star-studded French squad that arrived at a Euros as a hot favourites. However, after just three group matches, Les Bleus crashed out with a whimper. How did a group boasting the likes of Laurent Blanc, Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona self-destruct so dramatically?

With one of their strongest-ever squads, France are many people’s favourites to win the European Championships this summer. However, Didier Deschamps will be mindful of the perils of complacency during one of the toughest tournaments in international football. 32 years ago, he was a 21-year-old prodigy whose performances for Marseille had not only earned him a second consecutive Ligue 1 title but also a place in Michel Platini’s squad for Euro 1992. Just like today, Les Bleus were highly fancied frontrunners, but their tournament quickly unravelled at the group stage. By the time Deschamps and his teammates had landed back in France, Platini was out of a job.

A star-studded squad

The pre-tournament hype surrounding Platini’s men was certainly justified. France arrived in Sweden on a 19-game unbeaten streak and had booked their place in imperious fashion, winning every one of their qualifying matches. Les Bleus clocked up an incredible 20 goals in eight games, conceding only six along the way.

The squad boasted a galaxy of stars. In attack they had the lethal Papin, widely regarded as the leading striker in Europe at the time. The Marseille marksman had just notched 27 goals in 32 games, earning him a move to AC Milan for a world record fee of £10 million. Partnering JPP up front was the mercurial Cantona, who’d been recalled from the international wilderness after calling Platini’s predecessor Henri Michel a “bag of sh*t”. A move to Leeds United in January 1992 had reinvigorated the troubled forward and his dynamic performances helped the Yorkshire side to the English First Division title.

Elsewhere, Deschamps and the elegant playmaker Franck Sauzée, combined with stopper Basile Boli, swashbuckling fullback Jocelyn Angloma and captain Manuel Amoros to form a formidable contingent from domestic powerhouse Marseille. The fulcrum of the side was sweeper Blanc, fresh from a successful first season with Napoli.

Platini’s men had the unenviable task of kicking off their campaign on tournament opening night against the hosts and after a lethargic start they quickly found themselves behind when Tommy Svensson headed home Anders Limpar’s corner in the 24th minute. The introduction of PSG’s Christian Perez at half-time finally energised France, and it was the diminutive midfielder’s incisive pass that set Papin through on goal. The 1991 Ballon d’Or winner thumped the ball home with typical aplomb.

Group struggles

However, if the draw against the Swedes was well earned, the stalemate in their next game was less encouraging. Les Bleus were outplayed by a distinctly average England team and were fortunate to escape with a point after Stuart Pearce’s long-range free kick crashed off the underside of the crossbar. They were also lucky to avoid going down to ten men when Boli brutally elbowed Pearce in the face, causing blood to gush from the left-back’s eye for the remainder of the encounter.

Still, the French remained confident of progressing. For their final group game, they just needed to better England’s result and it seemed that Graham Taylor’s men had the tougher assignment against the buoyant Swedes. In France’s way at the Malmö Stadion stood Denmark, a last-minute stand-in for the war-torn Yugoslavia, and it was the Danes who took an early lead through Henrik Larsen. Les Bleus had made another slow start and, again, were showing worrying signs of ill-discipline as Cantona escaped a red card for stamping on John Jenson.

However, the introduction of the veteran Luis Fernández sparked an improvement, and they were rewarded 15 minutes into the second half when Papin dispatched an angled finish past Schmeichel. Buoyed, the French pushed on and finally started to play their best football of the finals. And yet, after Deschamps and Blanc had both spurned chances from close range, Lars Elstrup latched on to Flemming Povlsen’s cross and delivered the definitive sucker punch with just 12 minutes to go.

In the blink of an eye, the tournament favourites were out. Only Blanc, Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit, a 21-year-old unused sub, would go on to taste international success. After stepping down, Platini would never coach again.

While today’s Les Bleus have already made it past the group stage and the Round of 16, they too have been far from convincing. The disastrous Swedish campaign is a reminder that a slow start and any suggestion of complacency could have deadly consequences. Just ask their coach.

GFFN | John Porter

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