In Barcelona history, many French nationals have donned the blaugrana.
When Thierry Henry arrived to play alongside Lionel Messi, he was the perfect fit on the wing to complete an ensemble that was poised to become one of the best teams in the history of the game.
After that, Barcelona continued signing high-profile French players, but as the Catalan dynasty declined, the French contingent became an easy target to blame, as many of them failed to live up to expectations.
Defenders Samuel Umtiti (who was on the field at the 2018 final) and Clement Lenglet were candidates to finally replace the beloved Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano. Lucas Digne was supposed to challenge Jordi Alba, but never broke through, only to later become a well-respected left-back in England.
But the arrival of Antoine Griezmann and then Ousmane Dembele highlight Barcelona’s folly most of all in the post Neymar years, made all the more interesting when considering their importance to the French campaign in Qatar, and in the case of Griezmann, his role in helping the team win the World Cup in 2018.
The Bartomeu era will be remembered for going out and getting the best talent du jour, no matter the price.
When Neymar left for PSG, Barcelona was flush with cash, and they immediately got to work spending it. Alongside Philippe Coutinho, Dembele and Griezmann were the crown jewels that would lead Barcelona into the future as the old regime, Messi and Luis Suarez, entered their golden years.
In the case of all three players, but especially Griezmann and Coutinho, it proved impossible to integrate with Messi.
Ernesto Valverde experienced some early success that papered over major structural problems that were brewing. Messi to the rescue was the strategy, but it came at the cost of neglecting their big-name investments, which were dropping quickly in value both on the field and in the market.
It’s true that Coutinho and Dembele experienced injuries that made it difficult to find their form.
Still, all three of them played enough for spectators to see that Valverde was seriously struggling to create a system that maximized the talent at his disposal. Instead, he took the approach of seeing how far the momentum of past success could carry the team forward, mostly sticking with the same formation and tactical approach, while throwing in the new players and hoping they would find a way to do the job of the players they replaced.
When Umtiti went down and never recovered his dominant form, that was strike one against the French contingent.
When predictably Lenglet proved incapable of performing the duties of a starting center-back, French fingerprints were all over the problems on the defensive line.
In spite of his hard work, Griezmann could never produce at the level expected of him, and was offloaded for next to nothing to save on his wages.
Dembele just couldn’t stay healthy, and many people continued to blame him for the Champions League meltdown against Liverpool, having missed a sitter in the final minutes of the first leg.
The French contingent were a big part of the problem, so the story went.
And yet, France has become once again the powerhouse of world football, with a new generation taking over the prestigious legacy left to them by Zinedine Zidane and Henry.
Jules Kounde was one of the most exciting defensive prospects when Barcelona signed him last summer, and it was a coup to pry him away from Chelsea.
If Barcelona could afford it, could you imagine what the team would look like with Kylian Mbappe and Dembele on the wings, with Robert Lewandowski up top, and Pedri behind him?
For all the talk about Brazil being the tournament favorites, it was always France who continue to be the kings of FIFA.
It seems unfair to look at the French selection, and then consider all the talent left off the roster, and not expect them to do big things. All of this without Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, and Paul Pogba!
In many respects, credit must be given to Didier Deschamps, who has managed a dressing room full of famous egos, and chosen the perfect system to have an already devastating line-up play as even more than the sum of its parts.
With France, Griezmann looks world class again, getting two assists against England, and being the hardest working man on the field defensively.
Dembele, who had struggled to earn his manager’s confidence, has been indispensable in providing a vertical threat on the right side to worry opponents who already had their hands full with Mbappe on the left. He looks more determined and hungry than ever.
Kounde is doing what Kounde does, playing as a right-back and not complaining. Putting in professional performances, when you know what he’d really like to do is to be the flashy center-back he was given the freedom to be at Sevilla. Xavi will surely take note of this.
Barcelona’s biggest problem was never the players, it was that they didn’t hire a strong and intelligent manager who could lay out a vision and put it into action.
There’s a reason Bartomeu went after all those French players. France is where the talent is.
Lucky for Barcelona, they still have Dembele and Kounde. It’s too bad that Griezmann’s golden years were wasted, but it’s a joy to see him experience so much success on football’s biggest stage.
As hard as it is to root against the glorious underdog story that is Morocco, I’ll be supporting France the rest of the way.
That’s where the world’s best football is being played, and I’ll be rooting for the Barcelona boys, past and present, to make an impact.
If Barcelona wants to win the most important trophies again, it’s the French players who may need to lead the way.
At the end of the day, it’s the winning that matters, and the French understand, and have experienced it, more than anyone.