January 26, 2023

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

Varane was almost absent from this World Cup, one step away from another final, two steps away from another winner’s medal. Injured for Manchester United at Chelsea on October 22, it had been touch and go, the 29-year-old initially feared the worst. But he made it through and one of the hallmarks of France’s campaign was his confidence and leadership, his ability to draw on the experience of previous tournaments – going back to his first; the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

When France went into the break 1-0 up against Poland in the last 16 but failed to play well, Varane knew something had to be said. And so he said it. With him it is difficult to imagine flying teacups. Varane has long traded for his reputation for calmness, being someone you don’t always notice, which is fine in his area on the pitch.

This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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Qatar: beyond football

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years, The Guardian has covered the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights violations to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism has been collected on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football homepage for those who want to dig deeper into the issues off the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the field. Support our investigative journalism today.

Photo: Caspar Benson

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Varane was definitely there at the break against Poland and made his points – namely that it was knockout football and France would be out if they continued as they were. They would easily go to a 3-1 win. Varane has been doing the same on the field since his return to fitness and Deschamps’ starting XI in the second group match against Denmark, trying to guide his relatively inexperienced defensive teammates.

At right back, it’s Jules Koundé, who is more used to playing as a central defender; Deschamps overtook him after the first leg against Australia for Benjamin Pavard. To the left of Varane in central defense is Dayot Upamecano. And as left back, that is Theo Hernández, who replaces the injured Lucas Hernandez early in the game against Australia.

The trio has 38 international matches together. Varane has 91, not to mention four Champions League and three La Liga titles from his 10 years at Real Madrid. None of the three players were in the squad at the last World Cup, when France defeated Croatia in the final, and only Koundé was at the European Championship in the summer of 2021 when he made one appearance. The responsibility on Varane is enormous. As with everything, he takes it upon himself.

“The knockout rounds are the start of a new competition and against Poland we were not in the game as much as in the first half,” says Varane. “I felt the team needed a boost. I had to express myself. If I want to talk, I’ll talk. That’s what is expected.

“If I need to calm down the game, I can do that. If I feel the team needs me, I can do it. The most important thing is that everyone in the group is ready. We can have difficult moments; sometimes it’s in the dressing room. It is important that the whole team can deal with adversity.”

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

Varane was in tears when he was helped off the pitch at Chelsea after damaging his knee. “I then thought the World Cup was over for me,” he says, and it was devastating because he was in such excellent form.

His first season at United after a move from Real last summer for £41 million had been a disappointment, injuries held him back and the team worked horribly. This time out he flourished alongside new signing Lisandro Martínez – a potential opponent in Sunday’s final with Argentina.

“I then got a medical diagnosis,” adds Varane. “It said if I worked hard on my rehabilitation I could come back and be ready for the World Cup. I’m so happy to be here.”

Varane had to kick it 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 the former RB Leipzig partnership in the game against Denmark.

It doesn’t work that way between Deschamps and Varane. If Varane is fit, he starts. At the previous two World Cups and Euro 2020, Deschamps only left him out of the line-up once – in the last group match against Ecuador in 2014, by which time France had already qualified. Varane missed Euro 2016 through injury. His tournament partners have changed, through Mamadou Sakho and Laurent Koscielny, Samuel Umtiti and Presnel Kimpembe. He does not.

Raphael Varane

Varane came on for Konaté and he would face criticism in the final group stage match against Tunisia as Wahbi Khazri ran around him to score the only goal. More generally, France has conceded in every match – five out of five – which is irritating. They owed Lloris in the quarter-final victory over England – the goalkeeper made three fine saves – but the feeling in the French camp is that the performance was an improvement on that against Poland.

“Giroud compared the game against England to the 1-0 victory over Belgium in the semi-final of the last World Cup and I more or less agree with him,” says Varane. “England was tough. They held the ball well and we suffered. I don’t like to compare the two competitions, but now there is more intensity, the team is very strong tactically and we make few mistakes. The level continues to rise.”

France are the heavy favorites against Morocco and it will be up to Varane to set the right tone – without a trace of overconfidence. Him and the other historical soldiers.

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

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