Under legendary manager Michel Hidalgo, France had mesmerised an entire footballing world through their displays in the 1982 World Cup and the 1984 European Championships. They had indeed won the latter, on home soil, beating Spain soundly in the final. After Hidalgo had retired following that triumph, the French FA had put U21 manager Henri Michel in charge. Succeeding Hidalgo was a daunting task, but Michel had led the golden generation of French footballers to bronze medals in the 1986 World Cup. For a second successive global tournament had they bowed out to West Germany in the semi-finals, but with world star Michel Platini among their ranks, they had again won a lot of neutrals over.
France’ decline following the 1986 tournament had happened rapidly. They had lost the backbone of the side which had done so well earlier in the decade, as neither of defender Maxime Bossis nor ace midfielders Alain Giresse and said Platini would feature much since. Only the latter had played some part in the qualification for the 1988 European Championships, where France had failed miserably, finishing well beaten by both the Soviet Union and East Germany. A single win from eight matches, with an abysmal four goals scored, had been their undoing. Manager Michel had some rebuilding to do, but time was not on his side. France came into the 1990 qualification as outsiders, despite the fact that they were first seeds.
Still available to the manager were fine players such as goalkeeper Joël Bats and full-back Manuel Amoros. 24 year old Marseille striker Jean-Pierre Papin, who had scored twice during the 1986 World Cup, was also there. However, they seemed to be desperately short of midfield creativity. Midfield had been France’ greatest level of exuberance earlier. Now, they could need to look to players such as Toulouse’s Gérald Passi (24) and Marseille’s Franck Sauzée (22), both fine prospects, but with considerably less creative guile than some of their predecessors. And who would accompany Papin up front? Stéphane Paille (23) had notched in the 1-1 friendly at home to Czechoslovakia in August, just ahead of the qualification start. Would the Sochaux striker be playing his part now that Yannick Stopyra had retired at international level after a 0-0 friendly in Belfast in spring?
The French were looking to participate in their fourth successive World Cup, but no doubt did manager Michel have plenty of work ahead of him if he were to build a team strong enough to compete. Yugoslavia and Scotland appeared to be the biggest threat to French World Cup participation.
Friendly: France 1-1 Czechoslovakia
Line-up: Bats – Sonor, Kastendeuch, Casoni, Amoros (c) – Despeyroux, Sauzée, Passi (Vercruysse 65), Pardo – Papin, Paille
According to reports, this had been a miserable game from a French point of view. They had included three players described as ‘the hopes of French football’ in midfielders Despeyroux and Sauzée (debutant), as well as forward Paille (who’d strike the opening goal), and seen the debut of Pardo, but the fall from grace had apparently hit French football media hard: This team had so much to live up to. They’d failed against a Czechoslovakian team which were without, for the first time since they’d defected, Kubík and Knoflíček. “We’ll need a miracle against Norway”, sounded the cry.