A campaign that promised so much has finished disappointingly. For two years, Laurent Blanc and his players stuck to the same line: "Our objective is to reach the quarter-finals," they said in unison. "France have not progressed from the group stage at a major tournament since 2006. Our aim is to end that run."
Of course that is true, and they have every right to feel a degree of satisfaction at having achieved that goal. Les Bleus are still a long way from the heady days of 1998 and 2000 yet they are at least moving in the right direction again. Deep down, though, the players will feel frustrated. When Blanc's men extended their unbeaten run to 23 matches by disposing of Ukraine in clinical fashion, moving to the top of Group D, there was a clear sense in the camp that something exciting was about to happen.
In my privileged position as team reporter, I could see that. Already, when Blanc and his squad arrived in Donetsk, you could feel the positive vibe. The players were thrilled to be here and looking forward to restoring pride in the blue shirt. The players' friendly and relaxed moods when they attended press conferences or stepped into the UEFA.com interview room was a clear giveaway. This was a happy bunch.
What happened in the Sweden game remains a mystery. "I don't think there's a single explanation," Florent Malouda told us. "I wouldn't say the players were overconfident," insisted Blanc. Erik Hamrén's side were already eliminated and yet they seemed hungrier and sharper than France. The 2-0 reverse did not cost Blanc's team their place in the quarter-finals but the outlook definitely changed that night.
A first defeat in 24 matches should not have undone all the good work that had been carried out before. Nonetheless it appeared to sap confidence. Taking on Spain is tough at the best of moments, so when Blanc admitted his preparation had been delayed because he had needed to spend time calming his players down, I knew they were up against it.
Following Les Bleus every day for three weeks has been a superb experience. They may not have been the best side at this tournament, yet I would say they are the most intriguing. The French dressing room seems to be a fascinating place. It is difficult to know what really makes these talented players tick. But if Blanc stays and finds the answer, they'll be worth watching at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
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