Belgium v France (SF) (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 16)

Vive la fucking Franj.

I wrote a sequel to one of my poems, which… Is an odd thing to do. Here it is.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 15

I stare dumbfounded towards the French end of the pitch. The red and black shirts peel away towards the corner. The Belgian flags wave ever more ferociously. I glance towards the clock on the scoreboard. 36 seconds. Belgium 1-0 France.

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Earlier…

“Is he mental?” My foot reaches instinctively for a water bottle to kick, but as I’m not yet on the touchline, I only succeed in leathering the changing room wall. I bite my lip as pain shoots through my toes. “Is this because we thrashed Spain or what? He’s trying to bloody disrupt us!”

“I doubt Pep’s that petty.” Replies Bechkoura thoughtfully. “You know what he’s like. Can’t go 2 minutes without buying a playmaker nowadays. It’s a wonder PSG haven’t toppled over, they’re so top-heavy.”

“But why Coman? Why now? I’m telling you, he’s trying to fucking distract him!”

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“Kingsley’s a pro, he’ll be alright. I think you’re more distracted than he is by this.”

I take a moment to mull this over. Bechkoura’s probably right, but I can’t let him know so I smoothly change the topic of conversation towards the match. “How are the team feeling? Any nerves?”

“No more than you’d expect.” He replies. “There’d probably be less if Kylian was playing, but they’re ready. They know what’s at stake.”

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It is a remarkably big day. A Semi-Final against Belgium for France, while back in Auxerre, l’AJA are taking on Red Bull Leipzig in the Final of the Auxerre Cup, with Benoît Cheyrou’s men having successfully won their own Semi against Sunderland yesterday. Portugal are already through to the Final having knocked out Norway and I need us to get through this to face them. We can beat Portugal when we’re at full strength, we’ve already proved that in the EIL final.

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I’m having to make a few changes for this match, mostly for fitness: Corentin Tolisso and Neal Maupay are too tired to start and Mbappé’s bruised rib has been bothering him since the Ukraine game, but they’re all fit enough for the bench, while Aymeric Laporte is suspended after reaching his yellow card limit and misses out entirely. Luckily we have an absolutely disgusting amount of squad depth and I’m able to replace the quartet with Raphaël Varane, Adrien Rabiot, Thomas Lemar and Antoine Griezmann. Kingsley Coman starts and I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that he keeps his mind on the game.

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The Stadio Olimpico is crackling with energy as I make my way towards the pitch. Through the end of the tunnel I see the Tricolores of red, white and blue waving proudly, opposed on all sides by their Belgian counterparts of black, yellow and red. My team do indeed look confident in their body language as they conclude their warm up, which sends a flood of fierce pride coursing through me. 2 matches are all that stand between France and glory. 180 minutes of football, after which I’ll go down in history alongside the likes of Hidalgo, Jacquet, Lemerre, Deschamps and Wenger. We can do this. We can fucking do anything.

I stare dumbfounded towards the French end of the pitch. The red and black shirts peel away towards the corner. The Belgian flags wave ever more ferociously. I glance towards the clock on the scoreboard. 36 seconds. Belgium 1-0 France.

“CONCENTRATE!” I scream, clapping my hands together wildly. “FUCKING CONCENTRATE!” It was such a simple goal. We came out on the front foot and headed straight into Belgium’s half, where we turned over possession and Digne pressed Carrasco unsuccessfully in the corner, leaving us light on the left flank. Carrasco chipped it to Tielemans, who booted it down the wing for Origi, who crossed into the centre for Hamoudan to tap in. Simple. A simple goal, born of naivety and recklessness.

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2 minutes later, Kingsley Coman’s dispossessed on the half way line and Belgium break up the other wing with Hamoudan, who lays the ball inside for the underlapping Jordan Lukaku. Lukaku looks to his right and sees Origi, De Bruyne, Tielemans and Dendoncker all somehow in space on the edge of the box as our defensive line scatters. He sets up De Bruyne and we stay 1 goal down only thanks to Leo Gauthier, who palms the playmaker’s shot away. Carrasco shoots into the side netting on the follow up.

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A further 2 minutes on we’re attacking through the middle, but the French support groans in unison as Griezmann’s sloppy pass is behind the runs of both Bakayoko and Pogba. Luckily, Carrasco’s clearance this time is cut out by Djibril Sidibé and we work the ball towards the box again, with Lemar cutting in and teeing up Paul Pogba, who toe pokes the ball past Courtois from 15 yards, giving us some incredibly welcome relief.

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Just after the equaliser, Divock Origi pulls up holding his groin while running with the ball and has to be helped off by Belgian physios. His replacement, Nany Dimata, is quick, strong and not to be underestimated, but Origi has scored 3 and set up another 4 over the course of the tournament and his early exit from the match is a massive boost. The Belgians sportingly knock the ball out for a French goal kick following the injury and we play out from it, with Gauthier passing to Umtiti, then Bakayoko and then to Lemar, who drives up the left wing. He tries to pick out Griezmann’s run through the centre but Faes reads the ball well and heads it back as far as Pogba. The captain passes to Rabiot 25 yards out and he has space to shoot. He cracks it left footed, but the ball pings off the bar, just above the top left corner of the net. We needed a few minutes to grow into the match, but now we’ve got Belgium scrambling to stay level.

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As the clock ticks past 11 minutes, Umtiti picks out Digne on the left flank and the full back arcs a cross towards the penalty spot. In their panic, Engels, Faes and Lukaku all rise to meet the ball and when Faes manages to nods it on towards the far post, there’s noone left to stop Djibril Sidibé from slamming his 2nd goal of the tournament past Courtois.

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A few minutes on though, signs of complacency begin to show when Varane intercepts a pass but plays a horribly sloppy ball straight to Meunier, allowing Belgium to hit us again on the break. Dimata finds Tielemans, who uses his quick feet to beat Rabiot before slipping De Bruyne clean through. The Belgian maestro shoots, but is denied again by a stunning flying save from Gauthier.

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With 17 minutes gone though, De Bruyne finally gets his goal. It’s another frustratingly simple one as Hamoudan plays a one-two from a throw in with Lukaku, passes to Tielemans, who then slips a ball around the corner. Bakayoko stumbles, allowing De Bruyne time to shoot from the left hand side of the 6 yard box and this time Leo can’t keep it out. 2-2.

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A frantic first 20 minutes is almost topped off with a 5th goal when Dimata slips between our centre backs and latches onto a lofted ball from Lukaku, but he can only slide his shot narrowly wide. On the half hour, the action is back at Belgium’s end of the pitch. Griezmann finds Coman 20 yards out and the in-demand playmaker slots a pass through to Pogba in the box. Pogba takes a touch and fires us back ahead with his left peg. The shot goes straight under Courtois as our skipper bags his second goal of the day.

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10 minutes later we’re pegged back again in frustratingly predictable fashion. A wayward header from Varane goes straight to Tielemans, who hoofs the ball up the left wing. Dimata brings it down, switches to the right hand side of the box and Carrasco finds himself in a dangerous position while Digne sprints hopelessly after him. Carrasco stays calm, picks his spot and toe pokes past Gauthier from 10 yards. 3-3 at half time and both sides have lived up to their pre-game billings as mulletted great white sharks: Deadly at the front, but fucking laughable at the back.

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“You’re my trump card, mate.” I say to Moussa Dembélé following the referee’s whistle as we make for the changing rooms. “Stay out here and warm yourself up. You’re going on.”

Against England in the first match, Dembélé’s introduction gave us a foundation on which to build attacks and we need that again now. There have been a woeful amount of misplaced passes in the final third so far and we need someone who can make it stick while other players get up in support. He’s done it before and now I need Moussa to do it again. The alternative is to shut up shop and try to stop Belgium, but my cards have been out on the table for 2 years: We are France. We play beautiful football and we score more goals than our opposition. I won’t sit us back now that it’s come to the crunch. I won’t abandon those principals. If Belgium score another 3 in the second half, we’ll score another 4. We won’t knock on the door to the final and ask Belgium to let us go through, we’ll knock the fucking thing off it’s hinges. Griezmann is replaced. Come on, lads.

The change appears to pay immediate dividends: 6 minutes after the restart, Dembélé latches onto a Coman pass and waits with his back to goal on the edge of the box, before being absolutely clattered between Engels and Lukaku and earning the latter a yellow card. Lemar takes the free kick right on the edge, but sends it into the wall. Even so, it’s promising. Until 30 seconds later. Belgium counter quickly from the free kick and Dimata’s initial 20 yard shot is floaty and easy for Leo to catch, but then he drops the ball at his feet and tries to pick out Sidibé with a pass, but instead finds Hamoudan. Hamoudan crosses and Dimata volleys past Gauthier at the near post. I could cry. It’s 4-3 to Belgium and 3 of their goals have stemmed from misplaced passes.

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5 minutes later, we go agonisingly close to the equaliser when Lemar’s cross is cushioned down by Dembélé for Digne, who shoots against the far post, before Courtois backheel-volleys the ball out for a corner. No, that is not a misprint and no, I don’t wish to discuss it further.

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Shortly afterwards, Kylian Mbappé replaces the largely ineffective Coman, who I still suspect has his mind on other things, in a bid to add more quality to the front line, but just after the hour we’re dealt a cruel, cruel blow when Varane is adjudged to push Dendoncker following a corner. I didn’t see a push personally, but the referee had the best seat in the house and thinks he did. The liar. Tielemans converts the spot kick to open up a 2 goal cushion.

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Tolisso comes on replacing Rabiot, who’s had a poor match, before play kicks off again and I scream for more from my players, but it’s all gone a bit flat. 3-5 down in the Euro 24 Semi Finals. It’s all but done. Even for me, the man who avoided relegation from the Lotto Ekstraklasa thanks to a last gasp goal, who avoided relegation from Ligue 2 and Ligue 1 by the narrowest of margins and who got the bloody France job off the back of those slices of luck, this is a tall order. Crunching the numbers, I reckon getting out of this one would require an amount of luck equivalent to finding a four leaf clover on top of a winning lottery ticket. Which is on top of a yeti. Who has cooked far too much fillet steak and would hate for it to go to waste. And now I’m hungry. Fucking perfect.

My mind snaps back to the present just as Lemar slides a pass to Mbappé on the edge of the box. He side steps Meunier’s lunging tackle with ease and then lays the ball for Digne. Digne pulls it back.. POGBA!!! Slides it in! Get in! The hat trick hero Paul Pogba runs straight over to grab the ball from the corner of the net and we head back to our positions. 5-4 with 13 minutes to go. We have hope. We can pull it back. We can do this. We can fucking do anything. But we can never do anything the easy way, can we.

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With 10 minutes to go, Belgium are trying to reopen their cushion. Tielemans plays it onto the right wing for substitute Charly Musonda, who drills a cross in… Cut out by Umtiti! The French contingent roar their nation on as Umtiti gives it to Mbappé. Pogba… Tolisso… Good ball to Dembélé, who holds it up just inside Belgium’s half… Tolisso, to Pogba, then back to Tolisso… Brings it forward, then passes it out to Sidibé as blue shirts bomb forwards desperately… And then the full back’s cross is blocked. Belgium take the ball back and as one, the French players’ shoulders slump. Their heads drop. All of our heads drop. That was as good a move as we’ve managed to muster in this second half and it’s gone. We go all out for a 5th goal, but when the referee’s final whistle blows, the score is unchanged. Black, yellow and red flags wave jubilantly. Blue figures crumple to the floor all over the pitch. It’s over. We’re out. I have failed.

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I walk across the pitch on autopilot, blankly patting blue shirts on the back without registering their names and shaking hands with red ones without even thinking to look at their faces. It doesn’t occur to me to wave to the fans. It doesn’t occur to me in the moment to say thank you and goodbye for what will surely be the final time. After all, what is football if not a beautiful and cruel game, played by athletes, enjoyed equally by the loyal and the fickle and managed by the foolish and the expendable? I suppose my stint as France manager was bound to end this way: Finally and inevitably outscored.

C’est la vie. Merci et adieu. Vive la fucking Franj.

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But at least we won the Auxerre Cup, so you know… Bollocks.

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Euro 24 Part 17 >

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Author: wtfranjo

My name is Franjo. And I will be a Football Manager.

5 thoughts on “Belgium v France (SF) (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 16)”

  1. Great episode, so happy it’s back! Only criticism is I feel like the in-match pictures were a little too regular that it broke up the flow of the commentary? I know it was 5-4 so it had a lot of action points but I think I’d stick to only 2-3 pictures per game going forward.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Noted mate 🙂 and cheers! The pictures for every chance isn’t something I’m gunna stick to going forward, initially I just wanted to show that bastard Courtois backheeling the ball our and it sort of grew from there haha

      Liked by 1 person

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