England v France TONIGHT: Why World Cup opponents’ rivalry lacks spice
For two neighbouring countries with such a long history of conflict and mutual suspicion, England’s World Cup quarter-final with France tonight is curiously short on piquancy.
There is no love lost when the nations’ rugby teams meet each year in Le Crunch, while recent political developments have soured more than a century of Entente Cordiale.
In football, however, the rivalry has lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, with French players – and some English fans – usually more likely to be fighting among themselves than each other.
Perhaps it is because the teams have rarely met at previous World Cups and European Championships, and surprisingly have never crossed paths in a knockout tie.
For this reason France have simply not inflicted the kind of psychological scars on England that Argentina, Germany and even Portugal have over and over again.
There is a place in the semi-finals at stake in Qatar this weekend, though, and that has whetted the appetite across the Channel just as much as it has here.
“People are very excited,” says Jean-Pascal Arigasci, a sports reporter for almost 30 years with the country’s most-read daily newspaper, Ouest-France.
“For the last game against Poland, there were 15m people watching on TV. For France that’s a big audience. For this game against England maybe there will be 20m.
“We are used to having Le Crunch each year in rugby – it’s part of the history between the nations – but in football it’s very different because the teams don’t play so often.
“This game is special. To play England is always special, and much more with Brexit because the relationship is different.”
Relations reached a new peak seven years ago when France travelled to play England in a friendly just days after more than 100 people were killed in the Paris terror attacks.
On a poignant evening, the Wembley arch was lit up like the tricolore and English fans joined in with La Marseillaise in an act of solidarity that was warmly appreciated.
The Premier League, meanwhile, has long embraced its Gallic imports, from Eric Cantona and David Ginola to Arsene Wenger and Gerard Houllier, Thierry Henry and N’Golo Kante.
In truth, the lack of needle between the nations at international level has much to do with France competing at the highest level for most of the last 25 years while England have muddled along.
In that time Les Bleus have won two World Cups and a European Championship, and lost to the Three Lions just once in eight meetings.
Coincidentally, the last time England beat France in a semi-competitive arena was in 1997 at Le Tournoi de France, a mini-tournament held as a dry run for the following year’s World Cup.
Lining up on opposite sides that day were Didier Deschamps and Gareth Southgate, who will be adversaries in the dugout this evening.
Holders France are the favourites to progress, but there is a recognition that England should now be considered rivals on the world stage.
“The French players have no fear of playing against England. They are excited more than afraid,” adds Arigasci.
“We have the feeling that for the first time in a long time that both teams are very similar. England have a very, very good attack and it’s the same for France.
“They have a good midfield, with good young players and one experienced player – and it’s the same with France. And both teams’ weakness is in defence.”
French media were quick to welcome the prospect of taking on England this week, after both teams won their last-16 ties on Sunday.
“Ready to eat some lion” screamed the front page of newspaper Sud Ouest, while sports daily L’Equipe hailed Kylian Mbappe with the Anglo-baiting headline “God save notre king”.
While facing Mbappe is a fearsome prospect, it turns out the French believe their star could be shackled by England’s Kyle Walker.
“It’s not a good memory for Mbappe because in the Champions League PSG played against Manchester City and Walker had a good game,” says Arigasci.
Even if England upset the odds, it looks unlikely to poison the well too much.
He adds: “I think if England win, people here won’t be angry. England is waiting since 1966. They have not won many titles and France won in 1998 and 2018, as well as Euros. I think it will be okay.”