France most likely will not qualify for the 2014 Brazil World Cup.
It feels strange to write that, inherently wrong. But after a 2-0 drubbing away to Ukraine in the first leg of the World Cup qualifying playoff, France need to beat Ukraine by the same score today to extend the tie to overtime. If the score remains the same, the two sides will essentially flip a coin from the penalty spot. If Ukraine score, though, the task becomes that much harder. An away goal from Ukraine would mean that France could only advance to next year's tournament by absolutely trouncing their opponents by three goals or more. They'd have to win 4-1. Stranger things have happened, surely, but...
Because here's the thing. Ukraine can really play. Like France, Ukraine finished second while only losing once. France were unfortunate to draw Spain in their group, but faced no other real competition. Ukraine, however, had to navigate England, Montenegro, and Poland. They almost pulled it off, missing out on a World Cup berth by a single point to the English. Ukraine were always seen as a hardy, underrated soccer nation, but still, their handling of the French last Friday was shocking. They dominated Les Bleus, especially in the second half, defending confidently while getting forward menace. Andriy Yarmolenko pulled the strings in the attack, and put the game out of reach from the penalty spot eight minutes before time. By the end of the match, Ukraine had extended their clean sheet record to eight matches, and France, who have had trouble scoring against quality teams for years, will have to somehow buck that trend overnight.
For many fans, France are still seen as one of the top sides in the world, a team that would be great if they could just, for a second, get the shit together. But we remember them mostly for their 10-year reign at the turn of the century which began either at the 1996 Euros, where they made it to the semifinal, or the 1998 World Cup, which they won in front of their home fans, and ended with their heartbreaking 2006 World Cup final penalty kick loss to Italy. That French team flaunted players like Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera, Marcel Desailly, and Lillian Thuram.
And France now have their fair share of stars, like Franck Ribéry, Samir Nasri, Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra and the blossoming Paul Pogba. These players are all in the second tier, the best players who are still mere mortals. And really, that should be enough. Not every team can have a player as good as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, or Zlatan Ibrahimović; the vast majority have less—on paper, at least—than France. That's what makes their downslide since 2006 all the more puzzling.
Some have pointed to France's lack of leadership, this younger generation's lack of experience, or the country's dearth of great attacking players. (Their defense has actually performed well in competition. But France only scored one goal in the 2010 World Cup, and only three in four matches during last year's Euros.) It's likely a combination of all three, and it likely won't matter if they're unable to find a victory in the Stade de France this afternoon. France, once on top of the world's game, have slowly slipped into obscurity since their decade of dominance. Only a Thierry Henry handball in a playoff four years ago sent France to the World Cup.
For Ireland, it was robbery, a disgrace, a national tragedy. But for France, it was a miracle. Today, down 2-0 to the Ukrainians, they'll need even more than that.