SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Once upon a time the French were as good at soccer as any country in the world.
Between 1998 and 2006, France won one World Cup and made the final of another. It won consecutive Confederations Cups and captured a Euro title. At one point it was champion of the three most important international tournaments in the sport.
French coach Didier Deschamps not only remembers those times, he was partly responsible for them, captaining the team to the World Cup title in 1998 on its home soil and helping it win the European championship two years later.
His job now is to recapture that glory and erase the embarrassment of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when a mutiny against coach Raymond Domenech was the only sign of unity on a winless French team that finished last in its group.
Yet heading into this month's World Cup in Brazil, Deschamps' start has been uneven at best.
Just before France's final World Cup qualifiers last fall, Deschamps was forced to issue a public apology after defender Patrice Evra had a meltdown during a TV interview, calling a journalist and former teammates "tramps" and "parasites."
France then rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat Ukraine in a dramatic two-leg playoff, narrowly avoiding its first World Cup absence in two decades.
Six months later Deschamps was under fire again when he released a roster for Brazil that did not include midfielder Samir Nasri. That led Nasri's supermodel girlfriend, Anara Atanes, to launch a profane Twitter tirade against the coach, who struck back by suing Atanes.
Yet for all the drama, the Nasri episode demonstrates that France -- and Deschamps -- have learned from 2010, when a talented but undisciplined team self-destructed on the sport's biggest stage, drawing rebukes from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the suspension of all 23 players and the resignation of soccer federation President Jean-Pierre Escalettes.
"What happened, happened," Deschamps said when he announced his World Cup roster on national television. "That won't go away. It put a stamp on our history. But we don't need to discuss it again."
Nasri is the latest causality of that history lesson.
The Manchester City standout was a disruptive force for France during the European Championships two years ago. Benched following a locker room incident with a teammate, he later challenged a journalist to a fight. Deschamps wasn't willing to take a chance on a repeat of that in Brazil.
"The aim was to build the best squad, not necessarily to take the top 23 French players," the coach said. "(Nasri) has made it clear he is not happy when he is a substitute. And I can tell you it can be felt in the squad."
Still, France's results under Deschamps remain a mixed bag. Since he took over 23 months ago, after France stumbled out of the Euros with one win in four games, the national team has won just half of its 22 games. But its gutty comeback against Ukraine -- with Nasri sitting on the bench -- was arguably the biggest moment for French soccer in four years.
After that win, readers of the Paris daily Le Parisien ranked Deschamps the second-most popular national team coach in modern times.
Yet doubts linger. Can Deschamps keep the team together? Does France have -- or need -- an outspoken leader like the 1998 team had in Zinedine Zidane?
And speaking of Zidane, while the French have good players in forward Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, they lack players with the gravitas of Zidane, Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram.
They will also lack their best attacking player, Bayern Munich midfielder Franck Ribery, who was left off the French squad Friday because of a back injury.
"We have to remain ambitious," Deschamps told reporters Friday. "Obviously with Ribery at 100 percent we're a better team, but we'll try and be a good team without him."
What the French do have, however, are goals.
"The first is to erase the international humiliation it suffered in South Africa," Arsenal's French-born Coach Arsene Wenger told the Wall Street Journal. "The second objective, for me, is to get to the quarterfinals. The expectation level is low, and that's new."
WORLD CUP PREVIEW, GROUP E:
--FIFA world ranking: 26.
--Last World Cup: 2006.
--Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2006).
--How qualified: CONMEBOL round-robin, fourth place.
--It's a fact: Ecuador retired the No. 11 jersey of Christian "Chucho" Benitez and dedicated its World Cup effort to the charismatic striker, who died from cardiac arrest while playing for Qatari club El Jaish last summer.
--The skinny: Ecuador has qualified for three of the past four World Cups, which led an excited coach Reinaldo Rueda to say he wants to go to the final this summer. In that case he'd better buy a ticket because for all its accomplishments Ecuador is facing too many obstacles to success in Brazil. Benitez was its leading scorer, defender Jayro Campos is out with an injury and now midfielder Segundo Castillo appears to be out as well after injuring his right knee last Saturday in a loss to Mexico. That leaves Ecuador depending largely on Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia.
--FIFA world ranking: 17.
--Last World Cup: 2010.
--Best World Cup finish: Champion (1998).
--How qualified: Beat Ukraine in UEFA playoff.
--It's a fact: France's Lucien Laurent scored the first goal in World Cup history 19 minutes into a 4-1 win over Mexico in the 1930 tournament's opening game in Uruguay.
--The skinny: If the French can't reach the semifinals, they'd rather not hang around. At least that's been their World Cup history: Five times they've made the Final Four, but on the other 11 occasions since World War II they've gone out in the group stage or failed to qualify for the tournament. C'est la vie. This could be the year that pattern ends, though. Because while the team should cruise through group play even without midfielder Franck Ribery, who will miss the tournament because of a bad back, France isn't likely to go much further.
--FIFA world ranking: 33.
--Last World Cup: 2010.
--Best World Cup finish: Group stage.
--How qualified: CONCACAF, third place.
--It's a fact: Honduras' biggest international win came in the 2001 Copa America. Added to the field hours before the first game, it went on to beat Brazil, 2-0, knocking the South Americans out of the tournament.
--The skinny: Honduras doesn't defend well, has little creativity in midfield and is without a talented striker up front. Plus four years ago, in its second World Cup ever, Honduras didn't score a goal. On the bright side it lost one game 1-0, played Spain tough in a loss and tied Switzerland. So yeah, it has a chance -- a very slim one provided keeper Noel Valladares plays the games of his life at 37, New England Revolution forward Jerry Bengston and former Houston Dynamo forward Carlo Costly can score and Honduras wins every 50-50 ball.
--FIFA World ranking: 6.
--Last World Cup: 2010.
--Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1934, '38, '54).
--How qualified: UEFA Group E winner.
--It's a fact: Eight years ago Switzerland became the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup without conceding a goal, posting four straight shutouts but going out in the round of 16 anyway when it lost to Ukraine on penalty kicks.
--The skinny: A weak group should help Switzerland reach knockout play but this team, the fruit of Switzerland's well-developed youth program, should really be looking toward 2018. With Nuremberg's Josip Drmic perhaps the best of four talented options at striker -- none older than 24 -- and a likely starting 11 that averages 25 years of age, this World Cup is little more than a dress rehearsal for a talented but young Swiss side that could be a major threat when the tournament moves to the more accommodating -- for the Swiss -- climate of Russia four years from now.
--June 15: Switzerland vs. Ecuador at Brasilia; France vs. Honduras at Porto Alegre.
--June 20: Switzerland vs. France at Salvador; Honduras vs. Ecuador at Curitiba.
--June 25: Honduras vs. Switzerland at Manaus; Ecuador vs. France at Rio de Janeiro.
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