Lucas Hernandez was on the ground, writhing in pain with a stretcher on its way. Hugo Lloris could at least get back up but was enduring another sort of agony entirely, having dived too low when the ball was headed for the net’s roof.
Craig Goodwin got on the ground of his own accord, sliding to his knees in the ecstasy of a 30‑year‑old South Australian journeyman who had just scored nine minutes into his first World Cup. Ibrahima Konaté was stunned. Kylian Mbappé hung his head. Was this the champion’s curse? Were Australia about to pull “a Saudi Arabia”?
That is not how this story ended at the Al Janoub Stadium, but it did it cater well to the narrative of France’s temperamentality. And Zinedine Zidane was surely watching, finger‑steepling from afar, scheming amid reports that he has already reached a preliminary agreement to take over from Didier Deschamps after the tournament.
The alternative narrative is that France are notoriously slow starters at World Cup finals tournaments, and they just needed another 18 minutes for Adrien Rabiot to equalise, and another five after that for Olivier Giroud to score the first of his two goals – he is now level with Thierry Henry’s all-time record of 51.
Mbappé added to the scoreline after the break for a 4-1 victory that – following Denmark’s stalemate with Tunisia earlier on Tuesday – has the title holders on track to top this group.
That the scoreline did not blow out further was partly through their own profligacy – France had 23 shots to Australia’s four – and partly Australia’s tenacity in the face of this exorbitantly talented team.
The gulf in class is undeniably vast – even when, at one brief point in the second half, the Socceroos had 12 players on the pitch. Even without the injured Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Karim Benzema et al, the depth is frightening. Their 38th-ranked counterparts are young and inexperienced – half of the squad have 10 caps or fewer and only four more than 50. They are viewed internationally as little more than fodder for Golden Boot aspirants.
And yet, in a similar manner to an identical opening fixture four years ago, when France won by a whisker after a deflected own goal, Australia defended stoutly. The pre‑match rhetoric from the head coach, Graham Arnold, about sending out “11 boxing kangaroos” was working a treat. At one point in the first half Jackson Irvine floored Aurelien Tchouameni with a ferocious sliding challenge. Midway through the second Kye Rowles did a number on Mbappé.
After the early exchanges, during which Ousmane Dembélé had his way with Aziz Behich and Mbappé toyed with Nathaniel Atkinson, Australia cleared an ominous corner and then settled. Aaron Mooy recycled possession at the base of midfield as his teammates set about attempting to break down France’s defensive block. Les Bleus simply watched their opponents’ comfortable holding pattern, letting them play but offering no clear opening.
The opening goal came from nowhere. Stoke’s Harry Souttar unleashed a long diagonal ball that Mat Leckie brought down deftly, skipped past Lucas Hernandez and clipped a teasing cross that fizzed enticingly across the face of goal until Goodwin pounced and the net bulged as Lloris leapt in vain.
Not long afterwards Mitchell Duke shot and only just missed from at least 25 yards. An upset was brewing. Well, it might have been if not for the aforementioned talent at Deschamps’s disposal. Mbappé and Demebélé set about making hay in the wide areas, pushing Australia deeper and deeper into their own half, and then their own third, using Antoine Griezmann to confuse the yellow‑shirted defence.
That was especially evident after Griezmann forced a corner, the delivery of which did not clear the first defender. But when the ball landed at Theo Hernandez’s feet he curled it brilliantly for Rabiot, completely unmarked, to head home past Mat Ryan.
Giroud had been on the hunt from the start. The 36-year-old forward endured a barren 2018 finals and the record books were beckoning. He headed one attempt inexplicably high, but minutes later made it count when Atkinson was caught out of possession.
Two quickfire goals in the second half put the game to bed. France bore down and Australia struggled to clear their lines. They failed entirely when, in the 68th minute, Mbappé squeezed between the two centre‑backs in the nick of time to head home Dembele’s cross. The Paris Saint‑Germain star then turned provider, dropping the shoulder and darting inside for a cross that gave Giroud his record‑equaller. He was subbed off late to warm applause.
This display was not without hairy moments, most notably when Irvine hit the post while Lloris simply stood there and watched, as if in slow motion. He had never been luckier for that lick of paint.
The more wasteful moments, too, will be tested by stronger opposition. Griezmann shot wide, Mbappé hit row Z in front of an open goal, and an overhead effort from Giroud was askew. But for now this was more than enough. For now, it seems the 2018 title holders may yet become just the second champions in the past five World Cup tournaments to advance from the group stage.