Defending champions France have powered through to the Fifa World Cup quarterfinals in Qatar and former player Robert Pires believes Les Bleus have what it takes to go all the way again.
France topped their group before beating Poland 3-1 in the round of 16 and despite missing a few of their key players due to injuries, the two-time world champions have looked like one of the strongest contenders to lift the title in Qatar.
Pires, who is in Mumbai as part of Viacom18’s broadcast team, spoke to a group of journalists on Monday and shared his views on France’s strengths, Kylian Mbappe’s incredible form, Olivier Giroud’s latest record, Arsenal’s chances of winning the Premier League, and more.
Scroll.in was part of the interaction and spoke to the 49-year-old, who was a member of France’s World Cup-winning team in 1998.
Here are excerpts from the interaction:
France had a spate of injuries before the tournament but have still looked strong so far. What are your thoughts on the depth of talent in the squad?
First of all, yeah, it was bad news... all the injuries. Especially Karim Benzema, everyone knows how important he was to the team. But we’re lucky in France that we have so many good players. For example, Benzema couldn’t make it but we have Olivier Giroud, who is doing well. For me, the most important thing is for Didier Deschamps to try and build a great team. And yes, we’ve done well to reach the quarterfinals. I think there’s great quality in the squad.
Do you think France can go all the way and defend their title?
I hope we do (smiles). Of course, it will be very difficult, including the next game against England. And you have Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Netherlands and Brazil who all want the same thing – to be world champions. For me, France have been one of the favourites from the start, but you need to prove yourself and be better than the opponents.
We have seen over time that defending champions at Fifa World Cups tend to struggle. However, this French team seems to be matching its level from 2018. What do you think is different about it?
I’m not sure what the difference is, to be honest. We nearly have the same team and quality. At times, we have luck going our way like it did in 2018. But you need some luck to win anything. I guess the difference is that we have more experience this time. The players have played a lot of games in these four years and have reached a certain level. I think Deschamps has built a good team that can fight for the title. Of course, all other teams have the same aim but we are maybe stronger in terms of mentality.
Do you think France will be able to match England’s creativity in the midfield in the quarterfinals?
Playing England is always very, very difficult. When France play England in rugby, it’s like war. But you know what, I think France and England are very similar. They both play 4-3-3 and have some great talents in the squad. England’s players have great skill and speed, they perhaps aren’t as quick as Kylian Mbappe but players like Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka are very good. And I want to see Mbappe and Kyle Walker come face-to-face, just for their speed. So yeah, I think this game will be very interesting and electric.
Kylian Mbappe is having another impressive World Cup. What are some of the aspects about him that stand out for you?
He was outstanding against Poland in the round of 16. You and I know perfectly what he’s capable of. He’s a great talent with good technique. Of course, everyone can see his speed and I think nobody can stop him. So yeah, he’s very important for France. He’s reached a high level now and isn’t the same player he was when we won four years ago. Now, he’s more mature and much better. When you play with confidence, you can try everything. He’s stubborn, because he wants to be the best. And because he wants to be the No 1, he will always try and try and try. That’s why, for me, he’s one of the best players in the world.
Olivier Giroud has broken Thierry Henry’s record and is now the all-time leading goal-scorer in men’s football for France. Your thoughts on his career?
First of all, I’m very happy for him. He’s a very focussed player and deserves this record. We need a player like him. Every record is meant to be broken and scoring 52 goals for France is amazing, it’s unbelievable. I spoke with him this morning and he told me it’s like a dream. When he started playing, he had told me that Henry’s record of 51 goals is too far. And now, he’s the No 1. It has happened because he worked hard, believed in himself, and always played for the team. He’s always very proud when he wears the France shirt. In 2018, he told me ‘we won but I didn’t score’. He was a little disappointed because every striker always wants to score. Now, I hope he keeps scoring and lifts the trophy. He’s a very good striker, he’s different. In France, people like to compare Benzema and Giroud but they’re totally different. I know that in AC Milan, all the players are very happy to play with Giroud.. even Zlatan (Ibrahimovic). So you can imagine, that’s why he’s a great striker.
Could you describe what it feels like as a player to win the World Cup?
Well, it feels amazing. The World Cup is the best. I grew up with Maradona, not really Pele but I knew he was a great, great player. When you’re young and see players like these, you dream you will take their place someday. It’s just a dream, and this dream got fulfilled for me in 1998. It’s very difficult for me to describe that moment when we won the World Cup. It was a fantastic moment for France, we played the final in Paris and beat Brazil 3-0. So yeah, it was a good movie for France and our fans. We have won the World Cup twice and I hope we will add a third title this time.
Who do you think are the favourites to win the World Cup this time around?
I want to see the same final as 1998. It will be amazing as both teams have some great players. So yeah, France vs Brazil in Doha and the winner will be... France (laughs).
Do you think your former Premier League club Arsenal can win the Premier League title this season?
I hope. Yes, we have a very good chance. We have started very, very well and have been consistent. Mikel Arteta is stubborn about working hard and the players are responding to his message. Unfortunately, we have lost Gabriel Jesus for maybe two months and it will be difficult without him. For me, he is a very important player with his goals and assists. But I believe in this squad and in Arteta. We need to try and keep this philosophy. And yeah, I hope we will lift the Premier League trophy this season.
Robert Pires is a part of Viacom18 Sports expert panel for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. The football World Cup is being broadcast on Sports18 and JioCinema in India.