France coach Didier Deschamps is sweating on the fitness of several key players on Saturday as his team battled a mystery virus on the eve of the World Cup final against Argentina.
With little more than 24 hours to go before the world champions face Lionel Messi and Argentina at Doha’s Lusail Stadium on Sunday, France have been left reeling by a viral outbreak that is believed to have affected five players so far.
Central defenders Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate, and winger Kingsley Coman were the latest players to be laid low by the illness, forced to miss a training session on Friday.
That came two days after Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano were ruled out of Wednesday’s semi-final victory over Morocco.
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Players, staff and other sources close to the French squad have spoken of a range of symptoms affecting the team in recent days including fever, stomach pain and headaches.
“We are trying to take as many precautions as possible, to adapt as necessary and get on with it,” Deschamps said at a press conference.
“Obviously it would be better if this wasn’t happening but we are handling it as well as possible with our medical staff.”
There was a more encouraging bulletin from the French camp later Saturday after all 24 members of Deschamps’ squad took to the field at the start of a final team training.
It was not clear if all players played a full part in the session, however, which was only open to the media for the first 15 minutes.
The virus scare threatens to derail France’s bid to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil achieved the feat in 1962.
Standing in their way are an Argentina team led by Paris Saint-Germain superstar Messi, who is looking to cap his glittering career with the one major title that has eluded him.
Anticipation for the showdown between the European and South American heavyweights is reaching fever pitch, with the cheapest tickets on the secondary market changing hands for more than $4,000.
Argentina fans who have flooded into Qatar for the tournament demonstrated for a second day outside a Doha hotel on Friday, demanding their country’s national federation help them find tickets for the final.
Around 30,000-40,000 Argentina fans have been present at most of the team’s matches in Doha, and Sunday looks certain to be no exception against France.
“It’s like we’re playing at home,” Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez said on Saturday.
“We feel it before the match, during the match. It’s like playing in Argentina. That’s a great advantage.”
Martinez, one of the heroes of Argentina’s run to the final after his penalty-saving exploits in a quarter-final victory over the Netherlands, said the South American champions are unfazed at being portrayed as underdogs for Sunday’s final.
“We always like to hear that the opponent is the favourite because we don’t feel superior or inferior to them,” Martinez said.
“People say the favourites are France. But we have the greatest player of all time.”
France’s challenge will be spearheaded by Messi’s PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe, who at 23 could become the youngest player to win two World Cups since Pele achieved the feat at the age of 21.