France have historically been a disappointment on the global football stage. French clubs had never won the European Cup (now the UEFA Champions League) until 1991, and were generally considered lightweights on the European level. In spite of being one of the major European countries, France had never won anything until 1984, when an excellent generation of footballers emerged in the 1980’s; led by Platini, they won the 1984 European championship. This win came between two bitter disappointments at the 1982 and 1986 World Cup, where France was eliminated by their German nemesis in two heart-wrenching semi-finals.
The trauma of these defeats seems to have been strong enough to prevent France from even qualifying for the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. But this was all to change from the mid-1990’s onwards. Since then, France have been one of the top teams in world football. They won the World Cup in 1998, won the European Championship in 2000, and finished second in the World Cup in 2006. They did have a disappointing 2002 World Cup, but that was mostly down to the exhaustion and injuries that beset their best players in Japan.
The recent glory days of France all came in the time of the great Zinedine Zidane—surely one of the greatest players in the history of the game. It’s always worth reminding yourself how incredible this player was, and how lucky you are to have seen him play in his prime.
But it was not just Zidane. His generation had incomparable players everywhere: Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc, Bixente Lizarazu, Youri Djorkaeff, Didier Deschamps, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and, my favorite, Emanuel Petit. Their triumph in 1998 was a true joy to behold.
That golden generation is now gone. Its last remnants, Vieira and Henry are shadows of their former selves. Vieira was not selected for the World Cup. Henry has not been starting for Barca and is desperately out of shape.
In Euro 2008, France’s first post-Zidane tournament, they were awful, getting eliminated from the first round of Euro 2008—trounced 4-1 by a mesmerizing Holland, drawing meekly with Romania and losing to Italy 2-0. The contrast was very stark between the Zidane team of 2006 that took Italy to penalties for the title, and the Zidane-less 2008 shower.
Since that abject performance, France have not given much reason for optimism to their fans. They managed to scrape through an easy qualifying group behind Serbia, and ahead of Romania, Austria, and the Faroe Islands. Finishing second, they had to play-off against Ireland for a ticket to South Africa. The story of how they eliminated Ireland is one that will remain with French football for a while, and will merit them plenty of ill-wishers and bad Karma.
After the second-leg went into extra time at 1-1, the French scored a spectacularly illegitimate goal. Thierry Henry, in an offside position, handled the ball, steadied it, and palmed it to William Gallas, also in an offside position, who nudged it in. There were two off-sides and two hand-balls in this, and yet, somehow, the referee awarded France the goal. When you see an Irishman violently cheering against France this World Cup, you now know why.
The biggest problem the French have is their coach. Raymond Domenech is a man who has demonstrated thorough incompetence in the field of football management. How he got the job in the first place is a mystery. How he has managed to keep it for six years is unbelievable. In 2006, his first major tournament, France started a complete mess. They were atrocious—drawing against Switzerland and playing an awful first half against Korea. There were wildly circulating rumours, however, that at half-time in that game, Zidane and other senior players of the golden generation took charge of the team. France went in better in the second half and managed to equalize. From then on, they improved drastically, beating Spain, Brazil and Portugal to make it to the World Cup final.
The team seemed to only do well when Domenech was subdued. Ironically, he later took the credit for the victory, and had his contract extended. His team has continued to play badly since, but for some reason that nobody in the entire universe understands, the French Football Federation refuses to sack him. Also, he openly picks his players based on their star signs. Seriously.
France come into the tournament with a cloud hanging over their heads. The press and the people are angry and want Domenech sacked. They do not trust him, and neither do many players. Henry, as the last survivor of the great generation, may need be the effective leader in this team, if he can do a Zidane and galvanize the team around him. But he’s been in pretty bad shape recently, that him playing could itself be a real disadvantage. There are no other players with the gravitas needed to lead the team.
But looking at the players available offers some cause for optimism. There is quality through the side: Lloris is a good goalkeeper, and in defense Abidal, Sagna, and Clichy are all good players, while Evra is one of the best left-backs in the world. But they will miss Gallas who got injured. In midfield, they have one of the best players in the world in Frank Ribery, although his mind may be preoccupied with other issues–he was recently accused of having sex with an underage prostitute. Malouda has been performing consistently well with Chelsea, and Toulalan and Diaby are solid midfielders with Lyon and Arsenal. And in Yoann Gourcuff, France have an exciting prospect that has been compared to Zidane. He is definitely one to watch out for this summer.
Their forward line might be a problem, however, as their strikers are a bit past it. Anelka, Henry, Cisse and Govou were all better players a few years ago. Gignac remains unproven.
After a recent win over Costa Rica and a draw with Tunisia, there was some optimism that the French had improved and managed to find a cohesive shape. Defeat to China soon quelled that.
Big question marks hover over the French. If the players can manage to overrule Domenech and play a system that suits them and plays to their strengths, the French may pull off something special. But with the absence of a Zidane figure in the team, this may be unlikely. A humiliating first-round exit is not beyong the realm of possibility, but neither is a successful tournament, as 2006 showed.
Squad list with links to player profiles on Fifa.com:
- 2 Bakari SAGNA
- 3 Eric ABIDAL
- 4 Anthony REVEILLERE
- 5 William GALLAS
- 6 Marc PLANUS
- 13 Patrice EVRA
- 17 Sebastien SQUILLACI
- 22 Gael CLICHY
- 7 Franck RIBERY
- 9 Djibril CISSE
- 10 Sidney GOVOU
- 11 Andre Pierre GIGNAC
- 12 Thierry HENRY
- 20 Mathieu VALBUENA
- 21 Nicolas ANELKA