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Varane leads France’s ‘historic soldiers’ in pursuit of World Cup | World Cup 2022

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

Varane almost did not participate in this World Cup, one step away from another final, two from another winner’s medal. Injured for Manchester United at Chelsea on October 22, he was hit and left, with the 29-year-old initially fearing the worst. But he succeeded and one of the hallmarks of the France campaign was his poise and leadership, his ability to draw on experience from previous tournaments – dating back to his first; the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

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

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Varane was certainly there during the break against Poland, making his points – that it was knockout football and France would be knocked out if they continued as they did. They would win 3-1. Varane has done the same on the pitch since his return to fitness and Deschamps’ starting XI in the second group game against Denmark, looking to guide his relatively inexperienced defensive teammates.

At right-back, it’s Jules Koundé, who is more accustomed to playing as a central defender; Deschamps replaced him with Benjamin Pavard after the first game against Australia. To the left of Varane in central defense is Dayot Upamecano. And at left-back is Theo Hernández, who replaces Lucas Hernandez, injured from the start against Australia.

The trio have 38 selections between them. Varane has 91, not to mention four Champions League and three La Liga titles in 10 years at Real Madrid. None of the three players had made the squad at the last World Cup, when France beat Croatia in the final, and only Koundé was at the Euros in the summer of 2021 when he played a time. The responsibility on Varane is enormous. As with everything, he takes it in his stride.

“The round of 16 is the start of a new competition and against Poland we weren’t as much in the game as we could have been in the first half,” Varane said. “I felt the team needed a boost. I needed to express myself. If I want to talk, I talk. This is expected.

“If I need to calm things down, 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 may have hard times; sometimes it’s in the locker room. It is important that the whole team can face adversity.

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

Varane was in tears as he was helped off the pitch at Chelsea after injuring his knee. “I thought at the time the World Cup was over for me,” he said, and it was devastating because he was in such great shape.

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

“I then received a medical diagnosis,” adds Varane. “It said that if I worked hard during 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 when Upamecano did well alongside Ibrahima Konaté, there were calls for Deschamps to stay with RB Leipzig’s former partnership in the game against Denmark.

That’s not how it works between Deschamps and Varane. When Varane is fit, he starts. In the previous two World Cups and Euro 2020, Deschamps omitted him from the squad only once – in the last group game against Ecuador in 2014, when France had already qualified. Varane missed Euro 2016 through injury. His tournament partners have changed, passing through Mamadou Sakho and Laurent Koscielny, Samuel Umtiti and Presnel Kimpembe. He does not do.

Raphael Varane

Varane replaced Konaté and he came under fire in the final group game against Tunisia when Wahbi Khazri rounded him to score the only goal. More broadly, France have cashed in every game – five out of five – which is irritating. They were indebted to Lloris in the quarter-final win over England – the goalkeeper made three smart saves – but the feeling in the French camp is that the performance was an improvement on that against Poland.

“Giroud compared the England game to the 1-0 semi-final win over Belgium in the last World Cup and I pretty much agree with him,” Varane said. “England were difficult. 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 don’t do much. The level continues to improve.

France are big favorites against Morocco and it will be up to Varane to set the tone, with no trace of overconfidence. Him, and the other historic soldiers.

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

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