RIO DE JANEIRO : With no competitive games for two years, France coach Didier Deschamps may struggle to gauge just how much progress has been made by his young team after its run to the World Cup quarterfinals in Brazil.
The one certainty as his country prepares to host the European Championship in 2016 is that his players will have the home fans behind them. After Friday's 1-0 loss to Germany, France leaves the World Cup proud to have improved its image back home and confident it has enough potential to challenge for titles in the years to come.
Although its shortcomings were exposed on Friday, when Les Bleus lacked the confidence needed to trouble Joachim Loew's experienced side, spirits remain high after some eye-catching performances that hint at a bright future. "My players answered the call," Deschamps said after the match. "We're in our rightful place, even though there wasn't an enormous difference between the teams."
France could not deal with the expectations created by its bright start to the tournament, and is still unable to dictate a game against a reputed opponent. This was already evident in qualifying, when it lost 1-0 at home to Spain and failed to show much initiative in that match. What France has in technique and teamwork, it lacks in daring.
France's World Cup was played out on two fronts, with matters off the pitch also taking on rather too much importance. The damage from the last World Cup four years ago when the team shamed a nation by going on strike -- has been fully repaired and the notoriously difficult French fans have been won over again.
"Thanks to everyone for the support you've shown us throughout the World Cup," center half Raphael Varane said. But the emphasis on improving the team's image proved distracting and bordered on obsession at times, with players repeating the same mantra that the squad gets along well in almost every news conference as if to prove a point.
Still, the reaction to France's run to the quarterfinals was largely positive. "L'avenir leur appartient" (The Future Belongs to Them) ran the headline on the website of sports daily L'Equipe, predicting the success to come.
"We can leave with our heads held high," midfielder Yohan Cabaye said. "We have a young team but this will help us grow." With several players in their early 20s, such as midfielder Paul Pogba, Varane, center half Eliaquim Mangala and winger Antoine Griezmann, and with striker Karim Benzema still only 26, Deschamps has considerable talent at his disposal to build a strong team.
"We'll come back even stronger," Griezmann tweeted. The defeat to Germany also showed how France still lacks a leader on the field, a player with the charisma to get the others going.
Someone like Franck Ribery, who will be 33 by the time Euro 2016 comes around and maybe past his best. France started the tournament well and coped without Ribery, who was ruled out shortly beforehand with a back injury.
The Bayern Munich star was not missed during the group stage -- with France beating Honduras 3-0, Switzerland 5-2 and drawing 0-0 with Ecuador. But he was exactly the type of player who could have made a difference against a well-organized and physical Germany side. Benzema failed to make an impact, Griezmann was too erratic in his judgment and fellow winger Mathieu Valbuena too easily knocked off the ball. France needed a risk-taker like Ribery to unsettle Germany's defense with his bursts of speed, changes of direction and his ability to shoot from distance.
Instead, France went out with a whimper after a promising start.