ST PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — The trophy-winning potential of the France national team that will play in the World Cup final on Sunday could be bathing in celebrations for years to come.
Like Spain’s team that won everything — two European Championships and one World Cup — in an awesome spell of dominance from 2008 to 2012, the youthful, skillful Bleus could have the makings of a dynasty.
Heaps of talent.
A defence that defanged the World Cup’s most prolific scoring team, Belgium, in a semifinal so engrossing that 90 minutes seemed to zip past in half that time.
Youth running through key positions in the team. The average age of France’s starting line-up was a shade under 26. Good for many years to come.
And Kylian Mbappe, surely the strongest candidate for the World Cup’s best player award.
Imagine how much better, how much more polished France’s young diamond will be at age 21, at the 2020 European Championship, or at age 23, at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and on and on. The mind boggles at the potential of the 19-year-old who may be the best deal Paris Saint-Germain ever make, bought one year ago for 180 million euros.
France’s timing is good, too. Coach Didier Deschamps is getting his pieces to fit just as other football powers in Europe are unraveling.
Portugal, the reigning European champion, will soon have to find a way to win without Cristiano Ronaldo, who although still remarkably potent at age 33, can’t carry his country forever.
Germany is in disarray, searching for scapegoats and answers, after the 2014 World Cup champion exited lamely from the group stage this time.
And Spain has flogged its tiki-taka game of possession and passing to death and needs to find a new path to victory and without midfielder Andres Iniesta. Spain’s new coach Luis Enrique has his work cut out.
In short, there’s a vacuum to fill and France is poised to do it.
Unless the English get there first.
Like Deschamps, England coach Gareth Southgate has built his team around young players. For months, Deschamps has been downplaying expectations by making out that France’s youth was a drawback, not its strength. But the strength of this team is that its young players already have wise heads that belie their tender years.
Just 25, Raphael Varane is a rock in the French defence, with a big-game maturity from having won multiple trophies with Real Madrid. With his partner at the back, Samuel Umtiti, still just 24, France has a central defensive pairing that should frustrate attackers long into the future.
Umtiti’s goal against Belgium was only his third goal for France. But its quality — he out-jumped the taller Marouane Fellaini to head in a corner — suggested there could be more where that came from.
Paul Pogba, at 25, is curbing his natural exuberance, his playground-football instincts and putting in more sober, stable performance in the midfield.
On the flanks, left-back Lucas Hernandez and right-back Benjamin Pavard, both aged 22, continue to impress. Digging up these two treasures was one of Deschamps’ smartest moves.
The big questions for France ahead of Sunday revolve around its central strike partnership of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. Griezmann, at 27, still has a future with France. But Giroud, at 31, is looking like the odd man out, the ponderous weak link when France is surging forward at speed, unable to keep up with Mbappe’s inventiveness and his Usain Bolt-like runs.