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From the games room of the luxurious Al Messila Resort in Doha, you can hear the laughter from far away.
There are eight France players sat round a large rectangular table, Uno cards in their hands approaching the end of a game – and it is tense. Youssouf Fofana and Aurelien Tchouameni look like they could win but Dayot Upamecano is in a strong position too. One card and everything can change.
This was the scene two days before the World Cup quarter-final against England, yet it is an evening like any other in the France camp.
Whether it is Uno, poker, piano, pool or PlayStation, the players enjoy their downtime. This squad is a happy one, and you don’t feel any nerves before facing their old rivals.
France and England’s men’s teams have never met in the knockout stages of a major tournament. The last time they played each other in the World Cup was in 1982 in the group stage in Spain, when England won 3-1 and Bryan Robson scored after 27 seconds.
There are no secrets between the two sides. Hugo Lloris will brief Raphael Varane and Upamecano about Tottenham team-mate Harry Kane’s habits and strengths.
Manchester United’s Varane will discuss Luke Shaw with Ousmane Dembele. Olivier Giroud knows John Stones and Harry Maguire well. All the current Premier League players – and even former – will talk about Kyle Walker to Kylian Mbappe. It is the same in the England camp, of course.
The mood is good among the France players. When they get to a big game like this, you see their concentration and focus change.
It is when they are big favourites that they struggle to not become complacent. They know this England side will be tough to beat. They are maybe slight favourites because they have Mbappe, but it will still take a huge collective effort to reach the World Cup semi-finals.
Mbappe is feeling great. He was amused by the English media’s reaction after he missed training on Tuesday – he had a recovery session indoors instead, but it sent rumours flying.
There was nothing to worry about but it showed the obsession with him. Kylian is happy, he is cool and he cannot wait for the game to start – and his battle with Walker.
At the start of the tournament, when Karim Benzema joined the ranks of injured France players alongside Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Presnel Kimpembe, Mike Maignan and Christopher Nkunku, Mbappe stepped up to take full leadership.
This was becoming his World Cup, his stage, and he felt he had to carry his team. He always says that he is born for it, born to be the star, to be the key player. So far he has delivered, but his biggest test, like France’s, will be on Saturday.
Even with the Paris St-Germain striker in this mood, Didier Deschamps had to rebuild his starting XI because of all the absentees.
He had a big jigsaw in front of him with pieces everywhere and had to make them fit together again. Before the start of the tournament there was a lot of scepticism back home about this France side and how far they could go.
With solid performances against Australia and Denmark in the group stage, and Poland in the last 16, they have shown their level, talent and cohesion.
The reinvention of Antoine Griezmann as a number eight, patrolling midfield to run games, has been a great move by Deschamps. He saw in his number seven all the ability to shine in this new role, and the Atletico Madrid player did not disappoint.
He has been outstanding, creating more chances than anybody else in this World Cup so far, while recovering an average of five balls per game. Working hard and being impactful is Griezmann’s job and he is doing it well.
So the scepticism left and the optimism replaced it. The French could occasionally be over-confident, but not this time.
England – their attacking power, their Jude Bellingham, their set-piece threat – are keeping France on their toes at least until kick-off on Saturday.
After that, it will be a game won or lost on a detail. The France players are hoping they will afford themselves more time to play passionate games of Uno.
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