It’s interesting to look back on if only because the recent past contrasts so starkly with a present of promise and even fulfilled potential for France. Indeed at this early point in their evolution and rise from their own ashes, a quarter-final appearance can be considered a mission accomplished for the team and redemption of sorts for one man.
It was only months after Patrice Evra stood out as the leader of an ill-advised coup that ripped apart his country’s 2010 World Cup campaign that he showed an immaturity that was becoming synonymous with that generation. When asked about Lilian Thuram’s idea that he should be banned from playing for France, rather than offer evidence to the contrary, his answer added lead weight to the notion. “Walking around with books on slavery in glasses and a hat does not turn you into Malcolm X,” he riled. Yet here we are with Evra now the emotional leader of a team in the last eight.
Credit where it’s due for it is not just because there are only four members from that embarrassing journey still about that he is the go-to-guy in terms of experience. It’s because he’s improved his attitude to the point that he’s perhaps reached national forgiveness, an idea that was unthinkable not long ago.
France 2 Nigeria 0 player ratings
France 2 Nigeria 0 player ratings
1/23 France: Hugo Lloris
The Tottenham stopper was always there when his country needed him, producing a string of fine saves. 7
2/23 Mathieu Debuchy
The right-back once again seemed more convincing in attack than when defending. 6
3/23 Patrice Evra
A typically steady performance from the Manchester United left-back. 6
4/23 Raphael Varane
Constantly impressive in the air, but the Real Madrid twice lost concentration with balls played in behind the defence. 7
5/23 Laurent Koscielny
Was kept busy by Emenike, but stood up well to the challenge. 6
6/23 Paul Pogba
A little careless at times, but he was dominant in both defence and attack, eventually breaking the deadlock with a 79th minute header. 8
7/23 Blaise Matuidi
A strong performer in midfield, but blotted his copybook with a poor challenge that ended Onazi's game, and was worthy of a red card. 6
8/23 Yohan Cabaye
A quiet game nearly exploded with a stunning volley that struck the crossbar in the second half. 6
9/23 Mathieu Valbuena
At the heart of France's best attacking moments, but his final ball often could have been better. 7
10/23 Olivier Giroud
A physical presence in attack, but this was one of the Arsenal forward's less influential days before his removal around the hour mark. 5
11/23 Karim Benzema
Anonymous until the introduction of Griezmann, but then played his part in a strong French finish. 5
12/23 Antoine Griezmann
The arrival of the Real Sociedad forward turned the game in France's favour. 7
13/23 Nigeria: Vicent Enyeama
Impressed with some theatrical shot-stopping, but was at fault for France's opener. 6
14/23 Efe Ambrose
Distribution let down the Celtic defender on a number of occasions. 5
15/23 Juwon Oshaniwa
Unleashed some thumping tackles early on, but was often caught out by France's quick movement.6
16/23 John Obi Mikel
Struggled with the fluent moving of Valbuena, and failed to dictate play in midfield for the Nigerians. 5
17/23 Joseph Yobo
A landmark fixture for the captain ended with the disappointment of a late own-goal. 6
18/23 Kenneth Omeruo
The youngster again impressed, especially in the air when dealing with Giroud. 7
19/23 Peter Odemwingie
Another inconsistent performance from the Stoke forward. 6
20/23 Ogenyi Onazi
Was tidy while on the pitch, but twice departed on a stretcher, and was unable to recover the second time. 6
21/23 Emmanuel Emenike
A menace up front for Nigeria, and on another day his disallowed first half goal would not have been flagged offside. 7
22/23 Ahmed Musa
Not as much of an attacking threat for the Nigerians in this one, but showed a willingness to get up and down the left flank. 7
23/23 Victor Moses
Often lacked finesse, but showed incredible workrate, not least when clearing off the line from Benzema. 7
But if the France of 2010 seem unrecognisable, the problem is Evra seems unrecognisable from the player he was then as well. For along with his mental rise has been a physical fall highlighted brutally here.
Once more against Nigeria yesterday, his engine chugged and stuttered. Get too far forward and he couldn’t get back. Stay deep and it was a case of hoping for the best.
When Victor Moses, in particular, picked up the ball in Brasilia, Evra would immediately cover yards in backward steps for damage limitation. The trade-off is clearly that offering up vast space in front of him is better than being bypassed and offering up that same space behind him. It’s been a problem for so long that it was little surprise Nigeria looked to exploit it throughout. In fact by the time the second half came about, even Efe Ambrose was occasionally abandoning his post at the back and looking to exploit the obvious flaw. It could become the fatal flaw in the French team.
“He was 22-years-old when I met him at Monaco,” said Didier Deschamps of Evra beforehand. “He’s very experienced, he’s a competitor, I think it’s his ninth season with Manchester United, he’s won a lot of titles, was sometimes captain there. He’s a winner, it’s obvious, he’s accustomed to big matches and prepared really well to be ready for this competition. We saw that in his first two matches.”
It was as if Deschamps was talking about a bygone version of the player because none of those physical attributes were on show in the second round. Indeed, for all that the manager has done in seeing out the violent vibrations of the past, his loyalty to Evra is now by far France’s biggest weakness.
The manager was brave and has already been proven correct in his axing of Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy as there’s now great harmony in this group. Outside of Karim Benzema, there are no star players, even if Paul Pogba lived up to some of his hype in this game. It’s a team effort that has made them more than the sum of their parts.
But in such a set-up, there’s no leftover ability to cover for anyone when they play the best sides, yet it’s what Laurent Koscielny was forced to do repeatedly against Nigeria as he diverted from the middle when needed. His reading of the situation was impressive because when Evra was easily dragged out of possession, he was quick to get across and lock the door before it was opened.
It’s a pity because while Evra now represents the evolution of France in terms of a mentality that has got them this far, his limitations represent why they may not go any further.