France have not only returned to the knockout stages of a World Cup finals.

A national team often riven by in-fighting and acrimony has also found itself back in the good graces of supporters.

The players will be followed closely this evening as they make their way out against Nigeria in the last 16, a test which the 1998 champions are expected to overcome with the same Gallic conviction that has informed their performances so far. The French strolled through the group phase, shrugging nonchalantly at the attempts of first Honduras and then Switzerland to prevent them from reaching the last 16 convincingly.

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Their fans have celebrated their progress, and their eight goals in Group E. A sense of unity has also offered supporters something to shout about, not least among those who looked on in frustration as the squad bickered and even refused to train at the 2010 World Cup. By contrast, France have been working well since reaching the finals after a decisive 3-0 win in the second leg of a play-off against Ukraine.

"There have been some ups and downs in the past few years, that's true," said Hugo Lloris, the France goalkeeper, flanked by head coach Didier Deschamps. "But since the return leg against Ukraine we have noticed a change, a rekindled fondness from the fans.

"We have done what we needed and made the effort on the pitch to make the fans happy so far. But we want to go further."

Nigeria midfielder John Obi Mikel is hopeful that a first World Cup quarter-final appearance can help unite the African nation currently gripped by violence and bloodshed.

Suspected Islamist militants killed at least 15 people yesterday in an attack on two Nigerian villages as violence in the northeast of the country continued to surge since a mass abduction of more than 200 school girls in April.

Mikel, 27, said: "I think it has been quite a tragedy, [but] we are here, we have a job to do, we have got to play the games and have get on with it, that's the job, but the things that are going on back home we shouldn't let it affect us."