Experienced Varane more than willing to lead by example

Manchester United defender one of the four ‘historical soldiers’ Deschamps and France have come to rely on

It was a neat description. As Raphaël Varane sat down to preview the World Cup semi-final on Wednesday against Morocco, it was put to him that he was a “historical soldier” for France, for Didier Deschamps, too. He, and three others – the captain, Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud.

Varane was very nearly not at this World Cup, one step from another final, two from another winner’s medal. Injured for Manchester United at Chelsea on October 22nd, it had been touch and go, the 29-year-old initially fearing the worst.

But he made it and one of the features of France’s campaign has been his assurance and leadership, his ability to draw on the experiences of previous tournaments – going back to his first; the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

When France went in at half-time against Poland in the last 16, 1-0 up but not playing well, Varane knew that something needed to be said. And so he said it. With him, it is difficult to imagine any flying teacups. Varane has long traded on his reputation for tranquillity, being someone you do not always notice, which in his area on the field is just fine.


Varane was certainly there during the break against Poland, making his points – namely that it was knockout football and France would be out if they carried on as they were. They would ease to a 3-1 win.

Varane has been doing similar on the pitch since his return to fitness and Deschamps’ starting XI in the second group tie against Denmark, seeking to guide his relatively inexperienced defensive teammates.

At right-back, it is Jules Koundé, who is more used to playing at centre-half; Deschamps brought him in for Benjamin Pavard after the first game against Australia. To Varane’s left in central defence is Dayot Upamecano. And at left-back, it is Theo Hernández, who has been in for the injured Lucas Hernandez since early on against Australia.

The trio have 38 caps between them. Varane has 91, not to mention four Champions Leagues and three La Liga titles from his 10 years at Real Madrid.

None of the three players had been in the squad at the last World Cup, when France beat Croatia in the final, and only Koundé was at the Euros in the summer of 2021 when he played once. The responsibility on Varane is huge. As with everything, he takes it in his stride.

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

“If I need to calm the game down, I can do that. If I feel the team needs me, I can do it. What is important is that everybody in the group is ready. We can have difficult moments; sometimes it is in the dressing room. It is important that the whole team can cope with adversity.”

His first season at United after a £41m move from Real in the summer of last year had been a disappointment, injuries holding him back, the team labouring horribly. This time out, he has thrived alongside the new signing Lisandro Martínez – a potential opponent in Sunday’s final with Argentina.

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

Varane had to kick his heels as an unused substitute against Australia. He was not ready then. And when Upamecano did well alongside Ibrahima Konaté, there were calls for Deschamps to stick with the former RB Leipzig partnership in the Denmark game.

This is not how it works between Deschamps and Varane. When Varane is fit, he starts. At the previous two World Cups and Euro 2020, Deschamps omitted him from the line-up only once – in the final group tie against Ecuador in 2014 when France had already qualified.

Varane missed Euro 2016 through injury. His tournament partners have changed, running through Mamadou Sakho and Laurent Koscielny, Samuel Umtiti and Presnel Kimpembe. He does not.

Varane came in for Konaté and he would feel criticism in the final group game against Tunisia when Wahbi Khazri ran around him to score the only goal. More broadly, France have conceded in every game – five in five – which is an irritant.

They were indebted to Lloris in the quarter-final win over England – the goalkeeper made three smart saves – but the feeling in the France camp is that the performance was an improvement on the one against Poland.

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

France are the hot favourites against Morocco and it will be up to Varane to set the right tone – with no trace of overconfidence. Him, and the other historical soldiers.

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