There’s a tendency to focus on the winners in sport. With good reason. Winners bask in the glory and adulation of fans and media. But in sport, there are always two sides. With winners, there are losers. Every team has lost a big game at some point. Sometimes it’s a matter of the opponent being better. But there are some losses that are so painful, they crush the soul of the players, coaches and supporters. This series of articles focuses on the deep pain of sport. Bring tissues if your team is featured.
Bienvenue au dechirement!
Did you know a Frenchman was behind the creation of the World Cup? It’s true. Jules Rimet was the man who brainstormed the notion that the nations of the globe should convene for a tournament t decide who’s the best. France have had some success on the international stage, winning 1 World Cup and 2 Euro championships. But this series isn’t about the wins. Here are the 5 most heartbreaking losses in French soccer history. Sacre bleu!
July 8, 1982. West Germany 3 (5) France 3 (4)
French football was on the upswing in the late 1970s/early 1980s. A new generation of talent started to come down the pipeline, lifting hopes in L’Hexagone.
Marius Tresor and Manuel Amoros anchored the backline. Dominique Rocheteau and Didier Six were solid attacking options. But the strength of this club was in the midfield. There was the set piece ability of Bernard Genghini, the darting runs of Alain Giresse and the pure genius of Michel Platini.
After a disappointing showing at Argentina 78, in which they didn’t survive the group stage, Les Bleus had high expectations heading to Spain 82.
Those expectations were questioned just 27 seconds into their opening match against England. Bryan Robson found the back of the net in record time to set the tone for a 3-1 defeat and sending the French reeling.
A must win versus perceived minnows Kuwait followed. Les Bleus responded with a 4-1 victory thus smoothing the choppy waters.
Their Group 4 finale against Czechoslovakia looked promising when Didier Six scored in the 66th minute. But a late penalty converted by the Czechs meant the points were shared. It was enough for France to advance but pessimism lingered.
The next round was another round-robin group as France drew Austria and a surprising Northern Ireland team. Their first match against Austria was critical. Anything less than a win would be damaging. Genghini provided the offence with a sublime free kick while Tresor was a fortress in defence that preserved a French win.
France found their form in a 4-1 win over Northern Ireland. Braces from Giresse and Rocheteau were more than enough against a game but undermanned opponent. France played beautiful football and with favourites Brazil surprisingly eliminated, they looked like the team to beat heading into the semifinal.
West Germany had gained the reputation of villains in this tournament. They started with a shocking 2-1 loss to Algeria. Die Mannschaft rebounded with a 4-1 victory over Chile.
Their final match against Austria was controversial. West Germany scored an early goal, then proceeded to sit back and kick the ball around with the Austrians. West Germany emerged with a 1-0 victory but accusations of match fixing by the Algerians followed. The result had West Germany and Austria advance while Algeria were eliminated despite being level on points. The match became known as the “Disgrace of Gijon.”
In Group B of the second round West Germany and England played a grim 0-0 draw which disappointed a vast worldwide audience. West Germany advanced to the semifinal with a 2-1 victory over the hosts Spain.
Seville was the site for a semifinal fixture that turned into a classic. Tensions were high as these two nations had a bitter history of grievances. Most famously World War II as France became occupied by German forces. This was still a sensitive subject in France 40 years later.
West Germany provided the icebreaker with a Pierre Littbarski marker in the 17th minute. France levelled the score 10 minutes later as Platini converted a penalty after Rocheteau was hauled down inside the 18-yard box.
France had the edge in play, thanks largely to Platini controlling the tempo in the centre of the pitch, spraying the ball smartly to his teammates while showing his deft dribbling skills. Meanwhile, West Germany weren’t doing anything to shed their villainous reputation. Keeper Harald Schumacher was leading the way as he held Six down after a failed French cross, then shoved him away just to let the French forward know not to mess with the bully.
Controversy reared its head in the 57th minute with Schumacher playing the heel.
The play started with Platini seeing a gap in the German defence while French defender Patrick Battiston raced toward the open space. Platini played a brilliant through ball to that space where Battiston was going. Schumacher came out of his area and charged towards Battiston. The FC Köln keeper leapt with malicious intent as Battiston got a touch on the ball. Schumacher turned his body midair and flattened Battiston who lay on the pitch motionless. Soccer players do have a reputation of diving and faking injuries. This wasn’t the case here. Battiston suffered a concussion, a cracked rib and lost several teeth. Amazingly, Schumacher wasn’t red-carded. Stunningly, Schumacher didn’t receive a yellow card. Most shockingly, Dutch referee Charles Corver didn’t even call a foul and rewarded West Germany with a goal kick as Schumacher never touched the ball as Battiston’s touch rolled harmlessly wide of the net. While the French players screamed at Corver as Battiston was stretchered off, Schumacher waited at the touchline, chewing gum like nothing happened.
The game resumed with the French taking over the contest. Six and Rocheteau both had terrific chances to put France ahead, but Schumacher denied their moment of revenge. In stoppage time, young Manuel Amoros hit the crossbar which further agonized the French and forced extra time.
France looked to have the game won just two minutes into extra time as Tresor laced one from just inside the penalty area to give France the lead. Six minutes later, Giresse also got the better of Schumacher and France looked to have an insurmountable lead. But like Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Darth Vader and others similar in ilk, West Germany refused to die. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge found the net with just three minutes left in the first half of extra time. Then just two minutes into the second half of extra time, Klaus Fischer pulled the Germans level leaving the French in shock. For the first time in World Cup history, a match would be decided with penalties.
France looked to have the advantage when keeper Jean-Luc Ettori thwarted Uli Stielke’s attempt from the spot. But Schumacher denied Six yet again frustrating the long-tressed forward. Penalties went into sudden death when Maxime Bossis failed to convert his chance. Horst Hrubesch ended the French dream as he made no mistake on his spot kick.
The French media were furious after the match. L’Equipe used the headline “Red Handed” with an accompanying photo of Schumacher’s brutal challenge of Battiston.
French fans were angrier as riots broke out in the street. Cars with German licence plates had their tires slashed and windows smashed.
Platini later said “The legend of this game comes from the fact we lost it. In losing it, we became a great team.”
Two years later, France won Euro 84 on their home soil. But the pain of Seville 82 never went away.
November 17, 1993. Bulgaria 2, France 1.
French football was going through a transition phase in the early 1990s. The likes of Platini, Tresor and Rocheteau had retired and replacements were difficult to find. France failed to qualify for Italia 90 and failed to get past the Group Stage at Euro 92. But a bright light was starting to shine.
Eric Cantona was the prototypical striker. Big, burly with a thirst for goals, the Manchester United man was expected to carry the attacking load for Les Bleus.
A fiery competitor, Cantona’s intensity sometimes got the better of him. He called former national team coach Henri Michel “a bag of shit” for leaving him off the Euro 88 squad. When Cantona was at Auxerre, he was fined for punching teammate Bruno Martini. Cantona was suspended for three months after delivering a kung-fu style kick at Michel Der Zakarian that would have made Bruce Lee proud.
While at his boyhood club Olympique Marseille, he was banned for a month after throwing his shirt to the ground after being substituted. More fights with teammates and referees followed which forced the brilliant but troubled superstar to move to England.
He helped Leeds United win the title in 1992 but it was under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson where Cantona shone.
Cantona joined the Red Devils in late 1992 while United were struggling to score goals. Cantona gave them an instant boost in production, scoring 9 goals while freeing up space for his teammates. Manchester United went on to win their first league title in 26 years and Cantona was a key figure.
The French national team were hoping Cantona would have the same effect during World Cup qualifying. Manager Gerard Houlier had Cantona pair up with Jean-Pierre Papin to form a potentially lethal striking duo. After losing their opening qualifying match to Bulgaria, Les Bleus rebounded as both Papin and Cantona scored in a 2-0 win over Austria.
The pair did it again in a 2-1 victory over Finland and French supporters were thinking they had something special brewing. Wins over Israel, Sweden and Finland again had the French on the precipice of entry into USA 94. All they needed was one point in any of their remaining two matches. Sounds easy. (Narrator voice: It wasn’t.)
A stunning 3-2 defeat to Israel left the French agape. Now they had to get a result against Bulgaria, a team that beat them earlier in qualifying. The French did have the advantage of playing at home as Parc des Princes in Paris would be the setting.
Despite some early nerves, Cantona delivered the icebreaker in the 31st minute. The partisan crowd was relieved their main man delivered a precious goal to ease concerns. The relief only lasted six minutes as Emil Kostadinov evened the scoreline, fraying French nerves yet again.
As the game wore on, the French settled in and looked somewhat comfortable. It looked like France would see it through and punch their ticket to USA 94. However, substitute David Ginola who came on for Papin made a costly decision. Instead of running the ball into the corner to let time tick away, he attempted to cross it into the Bulgarian penalty area where Cantona was waiting. The ball was poorly hit and Bulgaria snatched it to begin the counter attack. It wasn’t long until Kostadinov found himself with ball at the edge of the penalty area. The Bulgarian made no mistake as he siphoned one past French keeper Bernard Lama to give Bulgaria the upset and a World Cup berth. The French were stunned.
French midfielder and future captain Didier Deschamps was quoted as saying “We’ve made real asses of ourselves.”
The fallout was quick. Houlier resigned as French coach, eventually taking the manager role at Liverpool. Ginola never saw action at a major tournament for France. His last cap came in 1995 in a friendly. Papin also never got a chance to play in a World Cup. He too made his final international appearance in a 1995 friendly.
But Cantona may be the most tragic figure. He still was an integral part at Manchester United. His life and career however changed on January 25, 1995.
In an EPL fixture against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, Cantona received a red card for kicking Palace defender Richard Shaw. As the ultras started taunting him Cantona grew angry. Palace supporter Matthew Simmons ran down 11 rows and allegedly screamed at Cantona “Fuck off back to France you French motherfucker!” Cantona snapped and did his Bruce Lee impression on Simmons. A kung fu kick followed by a series of punches that landed on Simmons nearly started a riot. Cantona was banned indefinitely with the national team kicking him out permanently. When Cantona spoke to the press about the incident, he delivered one of the greatest/most cryptic/oddest quotes ever.
“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.”
Sadly, Cantona never played in a World Cup. Even sadder, he missed out on France winning the biggest prize in all of sports on home soil in 1998.
May 31, 2002. Senegal 1, France 0.
French football was at its peak in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Winning the World Cup in 1998 was followed by a thrilling Euro title in 2000, thanks to a David Trezeguet Golden Goal.
When France arrived in Asia for the 2002 World Cup, they came in as favourites to win the tournament. They had arguably the best player in the world in Zinedine Zidane, a star striker in Thierry Henry, a strong defender in Lilian Thuram and a fortress at central defence in Marcel Desailly.
To make things easier, France were tasked as heavy favourites to finish atop of Group A, drawing Denmark, Uruguay and Senegal. It should have been straightforward.
Their opening match against World Cup neophytes should have been a cakewalk.
Zidane was withdrawn from the lineup with a hamstring injury but his replacement was the seemingly capable Youri Djorkaeff. Most observers thought the French didn’t see Zidane for Senegal. But The Lions of Teranga were filled with players who played their club football in France. In fact, all but two of the 23 man roster called France their professional home.
France looked and felt overconfident. They were lazy to the ball from the onset. Senegal were waiting to pounce like lions. Their prey was captured at the half hour mark when Papa Bouba Diop finished off a cross after some sloppy French defending.
Senegal then put up a wall, defending every attack the French put up. France did wake up and found their legs as the game wore on, but their sleepiness and overconfidence proved fatal in the end.
It was a stunning result. The Guardian called it one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. The French media ripped the players and manager Roger Lemerre for the poor performance.
France still had a chance to regain their form but a goalless draw with Uruguay and a 2-0 defeat to Denmark sent the French home in shame. This is arguably the lowest point in the history of French sport.
July 9, 2006. Italy 1 (5), France 1 (3)
When the inevitable debate comes up on who is the best player of all time, Zinedine Zidane’s name invariably pops up. The man known as ZiZu is one of the most talismanic figures to ever grace a football pitch.
A sublimely skilled player with a mean streak, Zidane could play any style the match presents. If you wanted a track meet filled with scoring chances? Zidane was able to pot a goal or two. A tight defensive struggle? Zidane could hold the line. A physical affair filled with harsh challenges? Zidane wouldn’t back down from anyone. He was the complete footballer.
Zidane was a proud man and fierce competitor who hated losing. He was the main cog behind France’s 98 World Cup and Euro 2000 titles.
A disastrous 2002 World Cup in which Les Bleus were eliminated in the Group Stage without scoring a goal was not received well in France. Zidane was hampered with a hamstring injury and played in only one match. Euro 2004 saw France get knocked out in the quarterfinal by Greece. Zidane wanted redemption and the place to seek it was Germany 2006.
France were drawn in a group with Switzerland, South Korea and Togo. A manageable group but after the calamity that was Korea/Japan 2002, the French knew not take anyone lightly.
Nerves were high in the opener against Switzerland and it showed on the scoreboard. A goalless draw did nothing to ease the tensions amongst French supporters.
France looked to have found their game against South Korea when Thierry Henry scored after just 9 minutes. But the Koreans, who enjoyed an amazing semifinal run in 2002, weren’t intimidated and earned a share of the points with a late equalizer.
France were forced into a must win fixture against newcomers Togo. Les Bleus remember well the last time they faced an African team in the World Cup. Senegal shocked them four years earlier. France did not want to repeat that fate. Things looked bleak at halftime as France couldn’t penetrate Togo’s last line. But Patrick Vieira and Henry were able to contribute goals in the second half to see France through. The team and country breathed a sigh of relief.
It also allowed Les Bleus to relax and play their game. Led by the brilliance of Zidane, France defeated Spain 3-1 in the Round of 16.
Zidane was even better in the quarterfinal versus Brazil. He contained the flashy Ronaldinho while setting up every French attack. The only goal came off a set piece. Zidane caught Brazilian left back Roberto Carlos tying his shoe leaving Henry alone, who had acres of space in front of him. The French forward finished smartly, giving France a semifinal berth.
Zidane was dominant yet again in the semifinal against Portugal. He smothered Cristiano Ronaldo giving the Portuguese superstar no space. Zidane also scored the only goal of the match, converting a penalty after Henry was tripped up by Ricardo Carvalho inside the 18-yard box. France were headed to the Final where Italy awaited.
The Azure had a challenging road to the Final as well. Wins over Ghana and the Czech Republic with a disappointing draw to the United States sandwiched in-between gave Italy top spot in Group E.
A controversial penalty call that went in Italy’s favour was a deciding factor in the Azure’s Round of 16 win over Australia.
Italy were dominant in a 3-0 drubbing of Ukraine in the quarterfinal.
A classic semifinal against Germany was arguably the best game of the tournament. Fabio Grosso and Alessandro Del Piero scored in extra time, giving Italy a thrilling victory and a date with France in the Final.
Olympiastadion in Berlin was the setting for one of the most unforgettable Finals in World Cup history.
France won a penalty in the 7th minute which Zidane converted. Or did he? The shot hit the crossbar and bounced barely over the line. Despite Italian protests, the referee confirmed the goal was good and France had an early lead. Italy responded 12 minutes later as Marco Materazzi headed in a corner that eluded French keeper Fabian Barthez.
France had the better chances and higher possession numbers for most of the match. Zidane was a central figure as usual. He contained the Italian midfield with his positioning while keeping them off-balance with his crisp passing. However, the final third was lacking a finishing touch and extra time was needed. The drama had only begun.
In the second half of extra time, Zidane and Materazzi were jogging shoulder to shoulder near midfield exchanging words in the process. Materazzi tugged Zidane’s shirt but Zidane walked away. Materazzi said something, Zidane turned and delivered a headbutt to the chest, sending Materazzi crashing to the turf. After consultation with his assistants, Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo produced a red card, banishing Zidane. The sight of Zidane walking off the pitch with the World Cup only meters away is iconic.
The Final went to penalties. A miss by David Trezeguet proved to be costly as Barthez was unable to stop a single Italian spot kick. France could only watch Italy celebrate.
It didn’t take long for the world to react. French newspaper Le Figaro said the headbutt was “odious”. Time magazine ran a somewhat ludicrous story trying to connect the Zidane headbutt with multiculturalism.
The British tabloids couldn’t resist. The Times, Daily Star and the loathsome Sun (The Sun is evil.) all claimed to have hired lip readers to find out that Materazzi allegedly called Zidane “The son of a terrorist whore.” Materazzi sued for libel and got a public apology and some Euros from the tabloids.
Then French president Jacques Chirac hailed Zidane as a man of conviction but was critical of Zidane’s actions.
Materazzi gave an interview two months after the incident admitting he was trash-talking Zidane but also claimed that Zidane was very arrogant during the match. When asked about what was said, Materazzi admitted to grabbing Zidane’s shirt (which is a foul and France should have been given a free kick). Zidane reportedly said “If you want my shirt, I will give it to you afterwards.” Materazzi then retorted, “I prefer the whore that is your sister.” Zidane shut up Materazzi with the headbutt heard around the world.
Zidane apologized for the headbutt but did not regret his actions claiming he was provoked. In a radio interview, Zidane said about the incident, “Let’s not forget that provocation is a terrible thing. I have never been one to provoke; I have never done it. It’s terrible and it is best not to react.”
Sadly this was Zidane’s last match for France as he retired from international play following the World Cup. A shame that one of the best players in his generation, went out in such dubious circumstances.
July 10, 2016. Portugal 1, France 0.
November 13, 2015 will do down as one of the darkest days in France history. During a friendly between France and Germany at the Stade de France just outside of Paris, a terrorist attack involving suicide bombers killed 4 people. One of the bombers tried to enter the stadium but security wouldn’t grant admission. French president Francois Hollande was in attendance with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Neither were hurt during the attack. Hollande evacuated the stadium at halftime while fans stayed in the ground and on the pitch until it was deemed safe to leave. There were more attacks in Paris including one at an Eagles of Death Metal concert. In total, 130 people died while 413 were wounded.
Fast forward to seven months later, France was hosting Euro 2016. There were fears that these types of attacks may happen during the tournament. Security was rigid and placed with high importance.
Amid the tension-filled background, the hosts had to focus on football, even though their minds and hearts were with their country who were grieving.
Football wise, France were coming off a quarterfinal appearance at the 2014 World Cup, losing to eventual champion Germany. Les Bleus looked competent in Brazil but many suggested that some of the young players needed to take over from the old guard.
France started the tournament with two nervy wins over Romania and Albania. While the results were satisfactory, they weren’t convincing enough for French media and supporters. A goalless draw with Switzerland did little to ease concerns, even though France topped Group A.
Against Ireland in the Round of 16, France conceded an early goal and nerves were very frayed in Lyon. But a second half brace from Antoine Griezmann sent the French through to the quarterfinal.
It was in the quarters where France raised their game. Iceland were the darlings of the tournament, especially after a shocking upset over England. But Iceland’s Cinderella clock struck midnight as France attacked from kickoff and didn’t relent. A brace from Olivier Giroud paced the French to a 5-2 thrashing of the upstarts from Scandinavia.
France would face their nemesis, Germany in the semifinal. The same Germany that eliminated the French two years earlier in the quarterfinal at Brazil 2014. Historically, German teams had crushed French dreams. Most famously in 1982. The outcome would be different.
It was Griezmann who played the role of hero, scoring both French goals to lift France to a 2-0 victory avenging some bitter losses to their rivals.
Awaiting France in the Final was Portugal who took a very difficult path to reach their destination. A Seleção das Quinas didn’t record a single victory in their Group Stage fixtures. Draws against Iceland, Austria and Hungary were enough to advance, but they weren’t inspiring confidence either.
The road wasn’t any easier in the knockout stages. Portugal needed extra time to defeat Croatia in the Round of 16. That was followed with penalties against Poland which Portugal survived. A 2-0 result over Wales in the semifinal finally had the Portuguese in the big dance.
The Stade de France was full and teeming with excitement. Only 7 months earlier, terror engulfed the very same stadium. The French wanted to hold a party to show the world that they can overcome.
What no one expected was an invasion of moths that flew around the stadium. Players were desperately trying to swat away the pesky insects with little effect.
With the home crowd behind them, France wanted to play an attacking style while Portugal played a defensive, patient approach, looking to counter attack when the opportunity presented itself.
France received a break at the 25 minute mark when Cristiano Ronaldo was forced to leave the game due to a knee injury. This forced Portugal to play even deeper as their biggest offensive threat was no longer available.
France kept pushing forward but were unable to find a goal. Griezmann was left unattended in the 78th minute but his shot missed the target. The best chance was in the 90th minute as André-Pierre Gignac hit the post with a searing right boot.
It was Portugal who would find the finishing touch in extra time. Substitute Eder who ironically played his club football in France with Lille, cut inside the French defence and from 25 yards out, placed a brilliant low shot that French keeper Hugo Lloris couldn’t reach.
While it wasn’t even close to the sadness of the attacks seven months prior, the loss was still painful to French supporters. They so desperately wanted to celebrate a championship on home soil. Many players left the ground in tears thinking they had left their country down.
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