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World Cup history beckons for France, Mbappé, Deschamps

Manu Fernandez
/
AP
France's Jules Koundé, left, and Aurelien Tchouameni, right, celebrate their victory after a World Cup semifinal match with Morocco on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar. France won, 2-0.

World Cup history is beckoning for France, star player Kylian Mbappé and coach Didier Deschamps.

When France walks on the field Sunday for the tournament final against Argentina and Lionel Messi, soccer lore is waiting to be written for the team.

Les Bleus could be the first winner of back-to-back titles for 60 years since Brazil did it 1958 and 1962.

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The 23-year-old Mbappé would become the youngest player with two World Cup wins since Pelé accomplished that feat at age 21.

Deschamps would be the first man to coach two world champion teams since Vittorio Pozzo did it with Italy in 1934 and 1938.

“As for me, I’m not the most important person. It’s the French team,” said Deschamps, who is worthy of his own chapter in World Cup history.

He lifted the trophy in Paris as the team's captain when France first won the World Cup in 1998. He won it as coach in 2018, and now he is on the brink of getting a third.

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“Obviously, I’m proud. I know, everyone knows, we have the chance to win another title,” Deschamps said Thursday after beating Morocco in the semifinals.

France is playing in a fourth final in a span of seven tournaments — including the 2006 final lost to Italy in a penalty shootout after Zinedine Zidane was sent off. It's a dynastic era not seen since Brazil’s two decades at the top through 1970.

That team typified by Pelé’s brilliance won all three finals it reached starting in 1958, and also played in the decisive last match of the 1950 tournament, which was lost against Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro.

Morocco’s coach was quick to anoint France and Mbappé after they ended his team’s historic run as the first African team in a semifinal.

“Over the past 20 years you can say France is the top footballing country in the world,” said Walid Regragui, who is French-born and played most of his career there.

“If he won the World Cup again,” Regragui said admiringly of Mbappé, “he would be emulating Pelé.”

Both players made stunning World Cup debuts as teenagers, truly coming to life in the knockout rounds.

All six goals for a 17-year-old Pelé in 1958 in Sweden were scored after the group stage, including a semifinals hat-trick to help eliminate France as he wore the No. 10 jersey that he has made iconic.

Mbappé announced his World Cup arrival at age 19 scoring twice against Argentina and Messi in a 4-3 epic in the round of 16. Anything like a repeat of that game in Russia would be a dream final Sunday.

Mbappé has five goals so far in Qatar, tied as the leading scorer at the tournament with Messi. The Frenchman scored four times in 2018.

It took Pelé until his fourth World Cup in 1970 to score his ninth career goal, though in fewer games than Mbappé. The French No. 10 has a stage set Sunday to be a key player for a second straight final, which takes place two days before he turns 24.

What makes France and Deschamps even more impressive this time is adapting to a litany of injuries with new talent that never even played in a World Cup qualifying game last year.

Midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, starters in the 2018 final against Croatia, were lost to injuries before the tournament, and left-back Lucas Hernandez lasted just nine minutes in Qatar before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

After the 26-man squad was picked in November, starting center-back Presnel Kimpembe and forwards Karim Benzema and Christopher Nkunku were lost to injury.

To replace them, Deschamps promoted a wave of players in their early 20s who have excelled and smoothed the transition to a next generation.

Center-back Ibrahima Konaté was immense against Morocco and forward Randal Kolo Muani scored with his first touch as a substitute to seal the 2-0 win.

“Sure, they don’t have much international experience,” Deschamps said of his unlikely midfield pairing, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Youssouf Fofana. “But potentially they have everything.”

The youngsters players have veteran teammates to help guide them, including Antoine Griezmann, the goal-scoring winger reinvented as all-around midfielder. The 31-year-old Griezmann should be a lock for selection to any team of the tournament.

“They need to be surrounded by players with a bit more experience. It’s just a matter of playing with freedom,” the coach said, making his France project sound so simple.

Deschamps' decade in charge of France looks sure to continue with another contract extension pending, and another trophy waiting Sunday.