After two years of preparation, Euro 2016 will get underway at the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris on Friday, when the hosts will look to get off to a winning start against Romania. And France will hope that once the action begins, a difficult, sometimes traumatic, buildup to the event can be put to one side.
Preparations have of course been dominated by fears of security in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris last November. But the team itself has also undergone trying times. Leading striker and Real Madrid star Karim Benzema was left out of the squad after his alleged involvement in a plot to blackmail former international teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
And that decision has led to allegations, even from Benzema himself, that coach Didier Deschamps has bowed to a far-right element in French politics. The team is not just playing to become champions of Europe but with the expectation that they could help heal the wounds of a nation and bring it together in the same way as the diverse “rainbow team” that lifted the 1998 World Cup on home soil.
It is considerable pressure, particularly on a squad that has lost not only Benzema but other key players. The defense has been especially cruelly hit, with Raphael Varane, Jeremy Mathieu and Kurt Zouma ruled out by injury and Mamadou Sakho ruled out after a failed drug test. After naming his squad, Deschamps also lost defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra.
Still, France begin the tournament as favorites, buoyed not only by their home support, but a supremely talented squad led by Juventus star Paul Pogba. Captain Hugo Lloris, though, insists France now have to back up that tag on the pitch, having not played a competitive match since exiting the 2014 World Cup to Germany in the quarterfinals.
“There’s a lot of expectation. We know the importance of this match, how important it is to make a good start,” Lloris said at a pre-match press conference. “We’ve played friendlies for two years and there have been a lot of positives, but things start for real tomorrow."
“We’ve done nothing, we haven’t proved anything compared to Germany and Spain. But playing on home soil gives us a little bit of an advantage and we have to use it.”
Romania will be the team looking to spoil the party in what will be their first match in a major tournament for eight years. The glory days of the 1990s, led by the brilliant Gheorghe Hagi, may have long gone but they do still have one notable link to the side that made it to the knockout stage of the 1994 and 1998 World Cup, in coach Anghel Iordănescu.
The 66-year-old returned for a third spell in charge of his country in 2014, and led them to second place in their qualifying group for Euro 2016. And they did so with qualifying’s best defensive record, with just two goals conceded in 10 matches. The problem could come at the other end of the pitch, where they only scored 11 times. Still, Iordănescu has claimed that his side will look to do more than just frustrate a France team he believes has a notable weakness.
“I have prepared the players for this [the pressure of France] and I am convinced that they have the experience to go over the moments of domination,” he said. “We will follow the line that we have prepared, not to be defensive, but balanced and cause problems in the offensive, because France have their problems in defense.”
Prediction: This should be a comfortable opening game for France. In contrast to the team of the 1990s, Romania are a very limited side, with only Napoli defender Vlad Chiricheş playing at a truly high level. Romania have, surprisingly, displayed more entertainment in their last two warmup matches, losing 4-3 to Ukraine and beating Georgia 5-1, but it is difficult to believe they will look to do much more than sit back and frustrate the hosts. There may be some early tension, but France, with the attacking quality of Antoine Griezmann ahead of Paul Pogba, should make the breakthrough and go onto enjoy a comfortable evening.
Predicted score: France 2-0 Romania
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN2
Live Stream: Watch ESPN