PARIS (Reuters) - A lot has changed for France goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris and defender Bacary Sagna since they were part of the team that left the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in disgrace.
The pair, who will face Portugal in Sunday’s European Championship final, said it had been a long journey to win back fan support and turn a side in tatters into a force to be reckoned with again.
Lloris and Sagna were both part of the 2010 France team, who effectively went on strike -- returning to their team bus, pulling the curtains shut and refusing to train at their base in South Africa, the inaccurately named “Field of Dreams”.
The unprecedented action was in protest at a decision by the French Football Federation (FFF) to kick striker Nicolas Anelka out of the squad after he insulted then coach Raymond Domenech at halftime of a game against Mexico.
France were eventually eliminated in the group stage and the traumatic events that unfolded on the shores of the Knysna lagoon prompted a nationwide debate about what it meant to wear the country’s colours.
It took years for the wounds to heal and for the France team to redeem themselves.
”Knysna is a stain on the image of French football,“ Sagna told reporters on Saturday. ”We made a mistake, clearly, and showed a very, very bad image of the France team to the world.
“We had to make a big effort to get closer to people, to go back to basics. A lot of work was needed to improve a tarnished image.”
Lloris, who was playing under then captain Patrice Evra in 2010, confirmed it took a lot of hard work to rebuild the team.
“We went through a crisis but we fought our way back, all of us, the French federation, the coaches and the players, step by step,” he said.
Laurent Blanc, who took over from Domenech in the wake of the scandal, and current coach Didier Deschamps have been given the credit for turning France back into a tight, cohesive unit rather than a loose collection of big egos.
Prior to Euro 2016, France had already shown improvement by reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, falling to eventual winners Germany.
Sunday’s final will be their first at a major tournament since the 2006 World Cup, when they were beaten by Italy.
”It took a long time but building a team takes years and time and experience are things you just can’t buy,“ Lloris said. ”Spain and Germany took a long time to do that too.
“Now we are where we wanted to be, we have an opportunity to write French football history and we want to make the most of it.”
Editing by Toby Davis