Varane drives France’s “historic soldiers” in pursuit of the World Cup | WC 2022

IThat was a nice description. As Raphaël Varane sat down to preview Wednesday’s World Cup semi-final against Morocco, he was told he was a “historic soldier” for France, including for Didier Deschamps. He and three others – the captain, Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud.

Varane was almost not at this World Cup, one step from another final, two from another winner’s medal. Injured for Manchester United at Chelsea on October 22, it had been touch and go, the 29-year-old initially feared the worst. But he did it, and one of the hallmarks of France’s campaign has been his assurance and leadership, his ability to draw on the lessons of previous tournaments – back to his first; World Cup in Brazil 2014.

When France went into half-time against Poland in the round of 16, 1-0 up but not playing well, Varane knew something had to be said. And then he said it. With him, it’s hard to imagine any flying teacups. Varane has long traded on his reputation for calmness, being someone you don’t always notice, which in his area on the pitch is perfectly fine.

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years, the Guardian has reported on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is brought together on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football website for those who want to delve deeper into the issues off the pitch.

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Varane was certainly there at the break against Poland, making his points – namely that it was knockout football and France would be out if they continued as they were. They would ease to a 3-1 victory. Varane has done the same on the pitch since returning to fitness and Deschamps’ starting XI in the second group game against Denmark, attempting to guide his relatively inexperienced defensive teammates.

At right back there is Jules Koundé, who is more used to playing as a midfielder; Deschamps brought him in for Benjamin Pavard after the first game against Australia. To the left of Varane in central defense is Dayot Upamecano. And at left-back there is Theo Hernández, who has stood in for the injured Lucas Hernandez since early against Australia.

The trio have 38 international caps between them. Varane has 91, not to mention four Champions Leagues and three La Liga titles from his 10 years at Real Madrid. None of the three players had been in the squad at the last World Cup, when France beat Croatia in the final, and only Koundé was at the European Championship in the summer of 2021 when he played once. The responsibility at Varane is great. As with everything, he takes it in stride.

“The knockout rounds are the start of a new competition and against Poland we weren’t in the game as much as we could have been in the first half,” says Varane. – I felt that the team needed a boost. I needed to express myself. If I want to talk, I talk. That is what is expected.

“If I need to calm down the game, I can do it. If I feel the team needs me, I can do it. What is important is that everyone in the group is ready. We can have difficult moments; sometimes it is in dressing room. It’s important that the whole team can cope with adversity.”

Raphaël Varane leaves the field after picking up an injury against Chelsea for Manchester United
Varane feared his World Cup hopes were over after the injury for Manchester United against Chelsea in October. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Varane was in tears as he was helped off the pitch at Chelsea after injuring his knee. “I thought at that point the World Cup was over for me,” he says, and it was devastating because he was in such excellent form.

His first season at United after a £41m move from Real last summer had been a disappointment, injuries holding him back, the team working horribly. This time he has thrived alongside new signing Lisandro Martínez – a potential opponent in Sunday’s final with Argentina.

“Then I got a medical diagnosis,” adds Varane. “It said if I worked hard on my rehabilitation I could come back and be ready for the World Cup. I’m so happy to be here.”

Varane had to kick his heels as an unused substitute against Australia. He wasn’t ready then. And with Upamecano doing well alongside Ibrahima Konaté, there were calls for Deschamps to stick with the former RB Leipzig partnership in the Denmark clash.

That’s not how it works between Deschamps and Varane. When Varane is fit, he gets going. At the previous two World Cups and Euro 2020, Deschamps left him out of the lineup just once – in the final group game against Ecuador in 2014 when France had already qualified. Varane missed the 2016 European Championship due to injury. His tournament partners have changed, through Mamadou Sakho and Laurent Koscielny, Samuel Umtiti and Presnel Kimpembe. He doesn’t.

Raphael Varane

Varane came on for Konaté and he would feel criticized in the final group stage against Tunisia when Wahbi Khazri ran around him to score the only goal. More generally, France have conceded in every game – five out of five – which is annoying. They were indebted to Lloris in the quarter-final win over England – the keeper made three smart saves – but the feeling in the France camp is that the performance was an improvement on the one against Poland.

“Giroud compared the England game to the 1-0 semi-final win over Belgium in the last World Cup and I kind of agree with him,” says Varane. “England was tough. They kept the ball well and we suffered. I don’t like to compare the two competitions, but now there is more intensity, the team is tactically very strong and we make few mistakes. The level continues to improve.”

France are the hot favorites against Morocco, and it will be up to Varane to set the right tone – without a trace of overconfidence. He and the other historical soldiers.

“Myself, Lloris, Griezmann and Giroud know each other very well,” says Varane. – We have a lot of experience. We try to guide the younger players. We know the direction we have to go in and we want to convey our calmness and composure when the stakes are high.”

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