From the games room of the luxurious Al Messila Resort in Doha, you can hear the laughter from afar.
There are eight French players seated around a large rectangular table, Uno cards in hand as they near the end of a game – and it’s tense. Youssouf Fofana and Aurélien Tchouameni look like they could win but Dayot Upamecano is also in a strong position. One card and everything can change.
This was the scene two days before the World Cup quarter-final against Englandyet it’s an evening like any other in the France camp.
Whether it’s Uno, poker, piano, billiards or PlayStation, players enjoy their free time. This team is happy and you don’t feel any nervousness before facing their old rivals.
The men’s teams of France and England have never met in the round of 16 of a major tournament. The last time they faced each other in the World Cup was in 1982 in the group stage in Spain, when England won 3-1 and Bryan Robson scored after 27 seconds.
There are no secrets between the two camps. Hugo Lloris will brief Raphael Varane and Upamecano on the habits and strengths of Tottenham team-mate Harry Kane.
Manchester United’s Varane will discuss Luke Shaw with Ousmane Dembele. Olivier Giroud knows John Stones and Harry Maguire well. All current Premier League players – and even former ones – will talk about Kyle Walker to Kylian Mbappé. It’s the same in the English camp, of course.
The atmosphere is good among the French players. When they get to a big game like this, you see their focus and concentration change.
It is when they are big favorites that they struggle not to become complacent. They know that this English team will be difficult to beat. They may be slight favorites as they have Mbappe but it will still take a huge collective effort to reach the World Cup semi-finals.
Mbappe feels good. He was amused by the reaction in the English media after missing training on Tuesday – he had an indoor recovery session instead, but that sparked rumours.
There was nothing to worry about but it showed the obsession for him. Kylian is happy, he’s cool, and he can’t wait for the match to begin – and his battle with Walker.
At the start of the tournament, when Karim Benzema joined the ranks of injured French players alongside Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Presnel Kimpembe, Mike Maignan and Christopher Nkunku, Mbappe took the lead.
It was becoming his World Cup, his stage, and he felt he had to carry his team. He always says he was born for this, born to be the star, to be the key player. So far they have delivered on their promise, but their biggest test, like France’s, will come on Saturday.
Even with the Paris St-Germain striker in this state of mind, Didier Deschamps had to rebuild his starting XI because of all the absentees.
He had a big puzzle in front of him with pieces all over the place and had to put them back together. Before the start of the tournament, there was a lot of skepticism at home about this French team and how far it could go.
With solid performances against Australia and Denmark in the group stage, and Poland in the round of 16, they showed their level, their talent and their cohesion.
The reinvention of Antoine Griezmann as a number eight, patrolling midfield to direct games, was a great move by Deschamps. He saw in his number seven all the ability to shine in this new role, and the Atletico Madrid player did not disappoint.
He’s been outstanding, creating more chances than anyone in this World Cup so far, while hauling in an average of five balls per game. Working hard and making an impact is Griezmann’s job and he does it well.
So skepticism is gone and optimism has replaced it. The French could sometimes be overconfident, but not this time.
England – their attacking power, their Jude Bellingham, their threat from set pieces – keep France on their toes at least until Saturday’s kick-off.
Afterwards, it will be a game won or lost on a detail. French players hope they will have more time to play passionate games of Uno.