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    Storm clouds gather over France team ahead of World Cup defence

    SAINT-DENIS, FRANCE (AFP) – Just two months before France begin their defence of the World Cup, the mood around the team is in stark contrast to the celebrations that followed their win over Croatia in the 2018 final.

    The clouds have been gathering over coach Didier Deschamps and his squad as key players struggle with injuries and personal problems.

    Meanwhile, the French Football Federation (FFF) is locked in a row over image rights with its biggest star and its president faces accusations of inappropriate behaviour.

    It all threatens to derail France’s campaign in Qatar.

    More immediately, they go into their final matches before the World Cup this week against Austria and Denmark in the UEFA Nations League with a depleted squad.

    Paul Pogba, a goal-scorer in the 4-2 win over Croatia in 2018, is among the players sidelined.

    France’s forward Kylian Mbappe speaks with head coach Didier Deschamps. PHOTO: AFP

    As the Juventus star battles to recover from knee surgery he has filed a complaint with Italian prosecutors saying he was the target of a EUR13 million blackmail plot.

    Pogba’s brother Mathias is one of five people charged and detained in the case.

    Paul Pogba reportedly told investigators he was effectively kidnapped by childhood acquaintances and threatened by two men in balaclavas carrying assault rifles, who accused him of not having helped them financially.

    The ex-Manchester United midfielder also said the blackmailers wanted to discredit him by claiming he asked a witch doctor to cast a spell on Kylian Mbappe, another 2018 World Cup hero.

    “It is his word against his brother’s. I am going to trust my teammate,” Mbappe said recently of Pogba and those claims.

    Mbappe himself is involved in a row with the FFF that risks damaging squad morale.

    On Monday, their get-together at the chateau of Clairefontaine, an hour’s drive from Paris, was overshadowed by Mbappe’s refusal to participate in a photo shoot because of the FFF’s unwillingness to modify an agreement regarding players’ image rights.

    The Paris Saint-Germain superstar has boycotted a shoot before, and on Monday the federation responded quickly, promising to “revise as soon as possible the agreement”.

    Mbappe’s representatives insisted the matter “obviously does not call into question his total commitment and determination to contribute to the collective success of the national team”.

    Deschamps admitted, “It’s not the calmest atmosphere that I have known.

    “But it is not unsettling for me. My staff and I are focussed on what is happening on the pitch.”

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