France’s key to another World Cup is keeping a happy camp

DOHA, Qatar — France manager Didier Deschamps had the perfect summation of why it’s so important to have a squad that’s happy to be together, work hard together and spend so much time together: “You won’t win games because you have a happy camp, but you can lose games if you don’t have one.”

After all, the successes and failures of a team in a major competition like the World Cup are often linked to, and consequences of, the off-field aspects.

For example, Belgium players had several simmering interpersonal tensions in their dressing room, and they struggled on the pitch. Now, they’re heading home. Meanwhile, France have harmony in their camp, something that the defending champions know is It is not easy to achieve. At the rescheduled Euro 2020, which took place in 11 host cities across Europe in the summer of 2021, France struggled to find the right togetherness and cohesion. With all their group games taking place in Hungary, they stayed in the city centre of Budapest, which left them with nowhere to go: they had little to no outdoor space and no way to really escape the crowds.

It’s been the opposite experience in Doha. Inside their luxurious hotel, the Al-Messila Resort, it feels at times like a big holiday camp. Once the football (either training or matches) and hard work is done, Deschamps’ players are like 24 mates meeting up.

The music is always loud in the games room they have at their disposal. Midfielder Youssouf Fofana and forward Antoine Griezmann are the two dedicated team DJs, blasting everything from French hip hop to reggaeton and demonstrating their eclectic tastes. If they let defender Benjamin Pavard take over, there would be a lot of French classics like 1980s singer Daniel Balavoine — the Bayern Munich defender knows all his songs such as “L’Aziza” by heart. Kylian Mbappe is a big fan of “Gasolina” by Paris rapper Tiakola whenever he gets a turn.

Regardless of their individual preferences, Les Bleus already have their anthem of the tournament. After the impressive 2-1 victory against Denmark in the second group stage game, they celebrated in their dressing room by singing and jumping to the iconic dance tune “Freed from Desire” by Gala. Olivier Giroud was standing on the table with Pavard and Wesley Fofana, while the rest of the squad were throwing water and clothes everywhere around them.

Moments like that are special. They come naturally to this group, and they mean a lot to their unity. What also means a lot is who will win the next game of Uno, poker or Ludo King (an online board game.) The card game Uno is very popular among the younger players. They all sit there around the rectangular table — guys like William Saliba, Aurelien Tchouameni, Ibrahima Konate, Dayot Upamecano, Matteo Guendouzi, Axel Disasi and Eduardo Camavinga — and can play for hours. You can find a pool table, a foosball table, TVs to watch the other games too in the games room, but card games have been a welcome distraction.

There is also a piano and Disasi, the young AS Monaco defender who came in to replace the injured Presnel Kimpembe having never been called up to the senior side prior to this World Cup, has impressed his teammates with his talent. The 24-year-old taught himself how to play during lockdown and has been giving some basic lessons to Camavinga and Tchouameni, who have enjoyed picking up a new skill.

When it comes to sleeping arrangements, every player has an individual room with a big poster of themselves and their name on the door. They even received a pillow with their name on it when the squad checked in at the hotel. The players have French TV channels in their room, but also have a dedicated channel for clips of their next opponents so they can watch and study outside of training.

The games of FIFA 22 on the Playstation 5 are also keenly contested. There are a few TV series doing the rounds as well, like the Game of Thrones spin-off “House of the Dragon” to keep things entertaining, but the players haven’t just been socializing among themselves. Deschamps has organized family visits for his squad, even arranging time slots to keep their days and game preparation on track. There was a BBQ night as well on the big terrace outside their hotel, which the players really enjoyed.

To stay entertained during long training days, they’ve been creating their own fun. Some have this new game at the end of the sessions at the Al Saad stadium, just 3 miles (5km) from the Al-Messila Resort. The rule is simple: the ball is placed on the line to the side of the 16-yard box and you need to hit the ball with the right weight to get it in the quadrant around the corner flag. It’s their version of foot-golf (the hybrid game of football and golf) and to nobody’s surprise, Mbappe is the master at it. The weight on his touch is often perfect.

Griezmann is pretty good too, but if you lose? Well, you have to serve dinner to the other players who won the game. Tchouameni lost the other day, but has yet to perform his forfeit!

In the dressing room before and after matches, the dynamic is not much different. Players tend to be sat in clusters based on their positions. Upamecano and Konate, who are like brothers in life and have known each other for years, are next to each other. The same is true for the trio of Adrien Rabiot, Mbappe and Marcus Thuram, or for Ousmane Dembele and Griezmann, while the three goalkeepers (Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda and Alphonse Areola) are always together on one side of the room.

So far in this World Cup, the atmosphere within the French camp has been fantastic. Deschamps is usually a master at team building, though he’ll acknowledge he got it wrong at the last Euros. But he learned from what went wrong there and has cultivated a much more favourable atmosphere in Qatar.

The only thing that has been difficult for them off the field? Dembele’s fear of cats. The Barcelona forward isn’t just a little afraid, but full-on terrified and when the players eat out on the terrace of their hotel, there are always a few wild cats wandering around looking for food, which freaks him out! Everyone else just laughs while they finish their meals, a bit of humour that further bonds this group.

After a decent showing in the group stage, they face Poland on Sunday with a quarterfinal spot on the line. Expect this team to remain unified as they stay on target for their ultimate goal: being the first country to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil did it in 1958 and 1962.