It is truce time in France in the buildup to a play-off against Ukraine that has to be about looking forwards and not back. The relationship between Les Bleus and the French public is still touchy because of the after-effects of the regrettable players' revolt that stank the place out during the 2010 World Cup. The disconnect between squad and the rest of France has a tendency to flare up, and recent incidents with Patrice Evra and Frank Ribéry lashing out angrily prompted old disenchantment to bubble back to the surface.
For background, the latest shenanigans revolve around Evra's verbals directed at a group of television pundits in which he described the likes of World Cup winner Bixente Lizarazu as "tramps … lying to the French people". Then Ribéry launched himself at Gérard Houllier in the dressing room after France had thrashed Australia 6-0 in a friendly game. Houllier had made a backhanded compliment about the team's most important player in France Football magazine – "Ribéry is without doubt a technical leader … but he's not a world-class player who's going to make the team win like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo" – and Ribéry wanted to ram those words down Houllier's throat with such force members of the coaching staff had to intervene as tempers boiled.
Such stuff makes certain members of the France team who were implicated as trouble makers in South Africa not so easy for everyone to love. This wrestling with emotions towards the team is a tricky business. On the one hand, Evra, Ribéry, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri still drag around baggage. On the other, the majority of the current team are likeable enough professionals who don't deserve to be caught up in the malodorous dramas. "That's the dilemma," notes Erik Bieldermann of L'Equipe Magazine. "That gives you a headache. People try to be behind the team, but the shadow of South Africa is there."
But this week everybody has agreed to put on their shiniest smiles for the good of France. Negativity simply has to be shoved on to the back burner. Critics feel compelled to shut their mouths. Journalists know this is not the time for poisoned pens and indignantly tapped keyboards. Fans are focusing only on the outcome of the play-off. Players want to keep their heads down and concentrate on beating Ukraine to earn that ticket to Brazil. The French economy needs it, French morale needs it, French football needs it, with a home tournament coming up in the shape of the 2016 European Championship.
This sensation of pulling together was evident as thousands queued overnight for tickets to the second leg of this tie at the Stade de France on Tuesday night. The television audiences are expected to be huge. As the media gathered this week at Clairefontaine they were told queries about any of the recent outbursts were off limits, and they respected the request. There was, for a change, no debate about unsavoury subject matter.
The French camp was open on Monday, but then Didier Deschamps re-organised the usual routine to have three closed sessions before the trip to Kiev in the interests of what the coach described as "tranquility". No distraction. No tension. "For us to be together, for everything to stay between ourselves, can create something extra," explained Rio Mavuba hopefully.
France have found a fresh rhythm and have been playing more liberated attacking football in the buildup to this play-off. A long, goalless run between March and September was demoralising, but 13 goals in their past three games has helped to unblock them. They have been spread around as well, which has helped all-round confidence. Karim Benzema ended his barren spell, Olivier Giroud has been scoring, while Ribéry, Yohan Cabaye and Paul Pogba have all chipped in from midfield. All of them have been scoring freely for their clubs, too.
With Loic Rémy pushing for a start, that brings the number of players with an eye for goal at the moment up even more. "The group feels good after the last few games," says Pogba. "We are preparing calmly."
It is symbolic of the improvement that the biggest technical decision – whether to pick Benzema or Giroud up front – is a competition between two players who have stepped up their game recently, rather than an attempt to deal with what was a problem area when France couldn't score.
There is no great fear of Ukraine, especially as France won comfortably in Kiev during Euro 2012. Deschamps is keen, though, that nobody has a shred of complacency. Everybody remembers how a France team that were expected to beat the Republic of Ireland in the same situation four years ago suffered a dreadful scare and ultimately progressed with the aid of Thierry Henry's handball. "We're not up against a team of tourists," said Deschamps. "Ukraine are on a good run of form, and they concede few goals."
The France coach insists nothing less than maximum effort will be tolerated: "The highest level is about aggression, intensity, physical commitment. France will need a strong performance to qualify."
Although 2016 is not at the forefront of anybody's minds at the moment, as soon as the play-offs are decided a debate about how best to prepare for the home European Championship will become more important. If the worst case scenario happens against Ukraine, it will be time to think about changes (and most intriguingly of all, there is a lobby group campaigning strongly to see their dream of Zinedine Zidane in charge for a tournament in France).
If France do make it to Brazil, will they take their most experienced group, or use it as an opportunity to prepare young players who may well be at the forefront of the team in 2016? The likes of Pogba, playing so well for Juventus, Raphaël Varane of Real Madrid, and Antoine Griezmann, the under-21 player at Real Sociedad, are the tyros to make sure France continue to think about the future, and not the past.