Why Spain vs. France is a battle for the soul of soccer

Both of the past two explosive tournament matches between Spain and France have distinctly felt like a battle for the very soul of football was taking place. And it’ll be no different when they meet in Munich on Tuesday night in the Euro 2024 semifinals.

La Roja have reached the Allianz Arena having barged doors open and then stormed through with laughter, music, joie de vivre and the kind of “follow the band, there’s going to be a party somewhere” spirit that makes them (with the noble exception of Germany) the only team at the tournament anywhere near as colourful, uplifting and worth watching, as the various fan marches have shown over these last few weeks.

France have played uninspired, joy-free, stingy and risk-averse stuff which, were you an alien who’d just arrived from a far-flung corner of the universe, would have you asking locals in Germany: “Tell me about this NFL you speak of … or basketball, or rugby, or tennis or chess or anything except this excruciating soccer-thing I’ve been watching!”

If you’re French, if you once suffered terrible sunburn on a Spanish holiday or, I suppose, if you stand to gain a couple of bucks by winning the office sweepstakes, then I can just about forgive you quietly crossing your fingers for Les Bleus to sneak this, in their current style, with a lucky shot deflected in off one of the floodlights. Otherwise anyone who takes joy in sport played with vivacity, daring, risk, ambition or, heaven help us, a smile of pleasure on the combatants’ faces needs to be seriously rooting for Spain. If Luis de la Fuente’s reigning Nations League champions can conquer the tournament, they would edge ahead of Germany as the tournament’s all-time winners.

Let me explain the stark language I’ve used.

While France might well start this tie as slight favourites — partly because of their extraordinarily competitive attitude and tournament results over the past 26 years, and partly because Spain are badly hurt by losing three starters in the previous round — there’s a gulf between how these two sides have performed in reaching the gateway to the final.

Spain are Euro 2024’s joint-top scorers, with 11, while France haven’t hit the net from anything other than a penalty or own goal, scoring just three times in their five matches. La Roja have won all five outings so far; France have two wins the three draws. Spain have had 102 attempts at goal with 35 on target; France’s numbers are 89 and 21 respectively.

It raises the question: are tournaments only for winning and nothing else? No joy, no thrills, no adventure, no verve or sense of sweeping the opposition aside to bring win new admirers for the sport?”

My point is that if Spain can shrug off the loss of Dani Carvajal, Robin Le Normand and Pedri — horrible absences to deal with — and somehow beat France despite having several important footballers who could barely walk because of cramp and tiredness in Stuttgart on Friday night, then it’ll be an advert for the idea that you can win the big tournaments while playing with flair, attacking vivacity and commitment to entertainment.

It will say “you made a mistake” to some of the coaches and players who’ve been here in Germany, but departed without really “going for it.” You should play on the front foot next time and play to win, not to sneak over the line.

Trends in football tend to settle and can be hard to break, but they’re also better fed by inspiration and enjoyment than pragmatism and dull purgatory.

The sad thing to explain the grim way France are playing is that Didier Deschamps’ players are clearly low on both physical and mental freshness after a long and draining season. He’s a genuinely terrific coach blessed with absolutely divine players, but when they are flat-out exhausted, pragmatism rules.

After they eliminated Portugal on Friday in the quarterfinals on penalties, Deschamps, who’s had an awesome career as a player and coach, answered a question about France’s semifinal opponents by saying: “Spain are the best team at the tournament without question. I’ve seen a few of their matches, they’re producing good stuff and you have to congratulate them.”

Smashing words, yes, but caution, folks: they were an almost carbon-copy replica of what a France coach said last time these two nations met at a European Championships in 2012.

Back then, France were under the command of Laurent Blanc, Deschamps’ 1998 World Cup-winning teammate. Prior to the quarterfinal tie, Blanc said of the reigning European and World Champions: “Anyone who likes football must like the way Spain play. Spain have created something special in the last four years. It’s a pleasure, a gift to watch them play!”

Despite tossing those bouquets of flowers, he opted for thistles in his team selection. Dropping attacking, flair players such as Samir Nasri, Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa, Blanc used a “double right-back” system to try and nullify La Roja‘s left-sided attack, chose defensive, stifling tactics and didn’t attack properly until Xabi Alonso had scored twice so that Spain established a chokehold on the match and marched onwards to what would be a tournament win.

Then, like now, it was flair, fun, daring and attacking verve of Spain against the more percentage-oriented, “win however you can” conservative football. A battle for the sport’s soul, if you don’t mind the argument.

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Leboeuf calls for Kylian Mbappe to be dropped

Frank Leboeuf says that if Kylian Mbappe is struggling with his mask, he should be dropped for the Euro 2024 semifinal vs. Spain.

Just as a note, I also mentioned the dramatic nature of the last time France and Spain met in a tournament. It was the 2021 UEFA Nations League final at San Siro in Milan; Les Bleus won thanks to a goal from Kylian Mbappé that should have been given offside, but wasn’t, ultimately leading to the International Football Association Board recalibrating the law.

We reported it this way:

“For Mbappe’s winning goal, he was clearly in an offside position when Theo Hernández tried a through-ball, but Spain defender Eric García played the striker onside by touching the ball when attempting to intercept the pass. Although the IFAB has insisted the law itself has not been changed, a new list of guidelines for a “deliberate play” has been issued. It means that a only a controlled play of the ball, such as a misplaced pass, will now reset the offside phase. As Garcia’s attempt to stop Hernandez’s pass was instinctive stretching, Mbappe’s goal would now be ruled offside.”

The last time Spain and France met, it had a truly seismic impact on football, and the same can be true this Tuesday. Tournament football can, if Spain win via their usual tactics, be shown in its best light. There can be inspiration and idealism to be drawn from in Munich.

Good luck to Deschamps’ team making the best of their overplayed, exhausted troops and coping with Mbappé’s evident pain of that nose injury, along with his generally low-energy performances. I’m not attacking them; rather, I’m pointing out what a disappointing summer this has been for a side that, in all honesty, should be thrilling and entertaining us were it not drained of energy and impetus.

Football needs the impish joy of Lamine Yamal to prosper; it needs the imperious, elegant, forward-striding of Fabián Ruiz to thrive; it needs the explosive thrills of Nico Williams to have his night and entertain not only all of us who’ll be at this wonderful arena, but the hundreds of millions around the world who still want tournament football to be magical, memorable and magnificent.

During Euro 2024, at least, Spain are the team you’re dependent on if you want nourishment, enjoyment and joyous creativity. So, with due respect to Les BleusViva Espana!