Nicolas Batum has been part of France's national team for about 15 years now. He was part of a gold-medal game loss to the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics. Part of another gold-medal game loss at last year's EuroBasket. Part of a pair of semifinal-round losses at the last two FIBA World Cups.
Those were all difficult.
To him, though, this was worse. Much worse.
France — a medal favorite in the eyes of many entering this World Cup and the No. 5-ranked team in the world according to FIBA — won't even get out of the first round of this tournament, a massive embarrassment for a team that will consider itself a gold-medal favorite when it plays host to the Paris Olympics in 11 months. Latvia eliminated France on Sunday night, winning 88-86 in a group-stage game at Jakarta, Indonesia.
“When you lose in the semis or quarterfinals, it's different. I mean, at least you compete,” Batum said. “We didn't even get past the first round. We have high expectations. I'm ashamed."
There are 32 teams in the World Cup, split into eight groups of four teams. The first round is composed of three group-stage games, and France put itself into trouble by falling to Canada 95-65 on Friday in its opening contest. It was the most lopsided loss by France's senior men's team in a major competition, according to FIBA, since 1987.
Then came Sunday, knowing it was win or else. France held the lead almost the entire way, losing it for the first and only time with 37.7 seconds remaining.
And just like that, medal hopes gone. There's a meaningless game Tuesday to finish group-stage play against Lebanon, then games in the consolation playoffs, but none of it will matter much to a team that believed it could win gold.
“We've got to go home,” France guard Evan Fournier said. “It's very hard. Very tough. Not much to say. We didn't think we would leave the tournament like this. We have to learn from it and come back next year. There isn't anything else to do.”
The core of the team all should be there in Paris next summer: Batum, Fournier and Rudy Gobert. Victor Wembanyama, the No. 1 pick by the San Antonio Spurs who skipped the World Cup to prepare for his first NBA season, plans to be on the Olympic team. France is pursuing Joel Embiid, an international free agent of sorts who is also considering playing for the U.S.
Batum said he knows the team will be roundly criticized at home.
“I’m scared to go home because we let a lot of people down, he said. ”The whole country, a lot of people in the country believed in us to do something special, and we didn’t do it.”
He also knows that by the time the Olympic cauldron is ignited next July, this result will be forgotten. The question in the interim will revolve around whether France can figure things out and contend again.
“We have a big thing coming up in 12 months,” Batum said. “We have to now look back at what happened — everybody, from players to coach to staff to federation. ... Today was a big reality check for us.”
Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press