Sports

This France Team Was Supposed to Be Cursed. They Sure Don’t Look That Way.

World Cup winners tend to sink in the next one—but Les Bleus are threatening to repeat.

Griezmann and Mbappé celebrate.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images.

We might as well start with the witch doctor.

The story may have faded from memory a bit since its protagonist, French soccer star Paul Pogba, missed out on the defending champions’ squad for the 2022 World Cup with an injury, but it’s enlightening nonetheless. According to Pogba’s brother Mathias—whom the French midfielder claims is part of a gang that has attempted to blackmail and extort money from him, so, you know, grain of salt there—Pogba had in the recent past hired a witch doctor to curse his international teammate, 23-year-old megaphenom Kylian Mbappé.

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Why, you may wonder, would he do something like that? The pair won a World Cup together in 2018, where their interplay was an integral component of France’s offense. The former’s impeccable touch on his lofted diagonals was the perfect counterpart for the latter’s drag-racer speed. Pogba would float it where no one could possibly get to it, and Mbappé would get to it. Beautiful synergy.

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You may also wonder if he really did do it. Pogba initially denied the claims, but the French newspaper L’Équipe reported the existence of possible video evidence backing the story up, and Pogba’s story eventually became that he hired the witch doctor to assist with his own injuries. Mbappé took the high road, sort of, when asked in September, saying he had spoken with Pogba and believed his version of the story. “He already has certain problems, and I think it’s not the time to add to them for him,” the AP quoted Mbappé as saying. Maybe it sounded better in French, but it reads like someone who knows the difference between not kicking someone while he’s down and trying to help him up, and wants the world to know he knows it, too.

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Whichever version you believe, hopefully Pogba saved his receipt. While he is at home recovering from knee surgery (and while his club Juventus may be imploding during the World Cup break), Mbappé and France are soaring, with the player tied for the lead on the World Cup scoring charts and the team the first to qualify for the knockout rounds, which it managed so early that it could afford to play a heavily rotated side in Wednesday’s 1–0 loss to Tunisia. Despite this late knock, Les Bleus might be the favorites to win a second consecutive tournament, something no nation has achieved since Brazil in 1962.

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Success in Qatar was far from guaranteed. World Cup winners perform notoriously poorly at subsequent World Cups, with four of the past five failing to advance out of the group stage. France had a poor buildup to the World Cup, losing twice to Denmark and failing to beat Croatia in the Nations League this summer. It was upset by Switzerland in the Round of 16 at last year’s European Championships. It lost its starting left back to a torn ACL less than 10 minutes into the tournament. French teams have a history of imploding spectacularly due in part to personnel squabbles at World Cups, and, you’ll remember, one of the team’s stars purportedly just tried to have his teammate cursed.

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The alleged hex attempt rebounded on just about everyone else. In addition to Pogba’s injury, France entered the tournament without the services of one-time all-universe defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté, who’s nursing the latest in an injury history long enough to make you wonder whether this wasn’t Pogba’s first visit to the witch doctor. Missing the World Cup is the culmination of three seasons and counting in which Kanté has played in fits and starts, a frustrating period by his standards, even though he won a Champions League title with Chelsea and was named the final’s best player in the middle of it. France is accustomed to playing with the safety net he provides, covering for Pogba’s occasional defensive indifference and Mbappé’s antipathy by whirling from sideline to sideline gobbling up loose balls like the Tasmanian Devil. Kanté has been replaced in the starting lineup by 22-year-old Aurélien Tchouaméni, who’s so obviously the next big thing that Real Madrid paid $83 million for him this summer, but who had started fewer than 10 games for France before the tournament kicked off.

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France also, somehow, managed to lose the reigning Ballon d’Or winner during tournament preparations. Karim Benzema—who pulled so many clutch goals out of the ether for Real Madrid during last season’s Champions League title run that there’s a nonzero chance he’s a witch doctor himself—pulled out of France’s team with a quad injury suffered in Qatar just days before the games began. This would be a devastating blow to any other team’s chance, but France is used to operating without Benzema. He had only just come back to the French team last year after a five-year absence due to his part in a plot to blackmail former France teammate Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape.

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Long story short, there were “seriously cursed vibes around this French team,” as ESPN FC editor James Tyler tweeted when Australia opened the scoring in the nation’s first group stage game.

France would then score four unanswered in that one. They’d avenge the prior losses to Denmark with a thorough 2–1 drubbing that wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated. They fell to Tunisia, yes, mostly because they barely threatened until Mbappé came on.

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This is now unequivocally Mbappé’s team. He doesn’t have to share the goals with Benzema or the limelight with Pogba or the credit with Kanté. (It was not, after all, Mbappé’s name the French team was singing in the wake of their 2018 triumph.) And France hasn’t missed a beat, at least not until it emptied its bench against Tunisia. Tchouaméni has been superb; they may need to start workshopping lyrics for his song. Winger Ousmane Dembélé has been a livewire counterbalance for Mbappé on the opposite flank, keeping defenses stretched and scrambling. Forward Olivier Giroud is likely a better fit for Mbappé than Benzema, tactically. (Giroud just became France’s all-time leading scorer despite never being the most dangerous player on his own team; it’s like if Chris Bosh had led the NBA in scoring from 2011 to 2014.) The 2018 World Cup was Mbappé’s launchpad to global superstardom; 2022 could see him go boldly where no player has gone since Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo blasted off on their intertwined journeys to exorbitant, earth-shattering fame and riches.

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So why does it kind of seem like everyone hates him?

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Let’s leave France for a moment to talk about … err … Paris. Mbappé and the Brazilian star Neymar are currently waging a cold war over the future of Paris Saint-Germain, the club home they’ve shared for going on six seasons now. They have fought over who takes the penalties, and Mbappé is unhappy having to play as a center forward there, making space for Neymar the way Giroud does with him for France. Each is said to be angry at the special treatment the other receives.

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The conflict is a Kremlinologist’s dream of body language decoding and social media deciphering filling in around what might seem to be a bare minimum of actual flashpoints, but the most notable outcome so far is a report that Mbappé wants to leave PSG in January. This comes mere months after he was convinced to stay in Paris by some combination of the personal intervention of French president Emmanuel Macron and what might be the biggest contract in soccer history. The town ain’t big enough for the two of them, even when the town is Paris. (Never mind the fact that the greatest player in history is also in town. Lionel Messi has largely been spared the worst of the conflict, except when he steps in as mediator. Even for a player as talented as Mbappé, picking a fight with Messi is like shouting down a hurricane; the difference is less about interpersonal power dynamics than it is about planes of existence.)

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And yet, PSG are undefeated in the league this season. Mbappé trails only Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski in goals scored in Europe’s Big 5 leagues despite playing in a position he doesn’t favor, despite sharing space with Messi and Neymar. The jostling of personalities hasn’t yet overcome the play on the field. (There is still PSG’s annual Champions League collapse to look forward to.)

It’s difficult for those of us who do not play with him, who do not know him, to gauge the size of Mbappé’s ego. I believe that it is quite large; I believe that he probably does rub many of his teammates the wrong way; I believe that he is young enough to get better about it, should he desire to. None of this is unique in the world of high-level athletics. Who can blame him for being arrogant? He’s been told since he was a teenager that he might become the world’s best player and now he finds himself on the cusp of it. Arrogance can be unseemly, but if anyone’s earned a good percentage of his, it’s Mbappé.

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Similarly, who can blame Pogba for being jealous? He was once the future star, before the injuries and an ill-advised move to Manchester United and the rise of Mbappé eclipsed him. You’d be mad too, even if you have seen enough children’s movies and television cartoons to know that it is inadvisable to take out those feelings in the supernatural plane.

What matters for this month is that despite whatever’s going on in his psyche, despite whatever feelings he elicits in his teammates, despite the multitude of misfortunes that have befallen France, Mbappé has staved off the predicted collapse for now. If France continues to play well, he and Neymar could be on course to meet in the World Cup final, provided the Brazilian recovers from his ankle injury in time to play a part as expected. For fans of the drama surrounding Mbappé and France, that would be an outcome that’s anything but cursed.

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