Nickname: Les Bleus
Rankings: 8 (FIFA), 12 (SPI)
Elite Players: Yoann Gourcuff, Franck Ribery, William Gallas, Hugo Lloris, Florent Malouda, Patrice Evra
Key Players: Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Lassana Diarra, Bacary Sagna, Jeremy Toulalan
History: Winner 1998, Finalist 2006, Semifinalist 1958, 1982, 1986
Odds to Win: 16-1
“If the work is poor, the public taste will soon do it justice. And the author, reaping neither glory nor fortune, will learn by hard experience how to correct his mistakes.” – Jacques-Louis David
French soccer is like French philosophy, French literature, French food and French art. There is no defining national ethos. It’s about individual genius, domineering in the moment. In the 1980’s, it was Michel Platini’s unparalleled passing and expert finishing. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it was Zidane roaming the field with a dancer’s grace, manipulating the ball and orchestrating the French attack. Zidane is not walking through that door, nor, for that matter, are Claude Makelele, Lilian Thuram and the Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira of five years ago.
The Handball: Thierry Henry’s handball led to a goal that sent France to the World Cup. Get over it. Referees make mistakes. Both teams are subject to them. Ireland had chances for a winner. They did not score it. Even if the goal was disallowed, the teams were still tied. Ireland under Giovanni Trapattoni were extraordinarily cynical and negative. Bereft of talent, they set out to kill every game during qualifying. Thierry Henry may owe Ireland an apology. Ireland owes anyone forced to watch their two 0-0 draws with Montenegro or them scrambling to hold a 1-0 lead at home against Cyprus an apology. Three games in the 2010 World Cup will be exponentially more exciting, because Ireland is not playing in them.
The Scandal: Our country was founded by Puritans. The French kicked them out. We view morality differently. Prostitution in France is legal. Adultery is expected from powerful men. Frank Ribery, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou are not accused of being pedophiles. They hung out at a night club and had girls brought to them. Frank Ribery slept with a prostitute who, unbeknownst to him, was 17. They are witnesses in a criminal trial, not accused of wrongdoing. If this was the U.S. National Team, players would get the Tiger treatment, completely overshadowing the World Cup. Not in France. This doesn’t titillate them. Les Bleus easily could be stopped from Allez-ing in South Africa, but Frank Ribery’s marital troubles won’t be the cause.
The Raymond Problem: Nobody loves Raymond Domenech, with good reason. At Euro 2008 France drew Romania 0-0. They were creamed 4-1 by the Dutch. The French played Italy in the final group stage match. The Italians held the tiebreaker. France needed to win. After Eric Abidal’s penalty, France was down to 10-men and losing 1-0. They needed to score two goals. Rather than sacrifice one of his two holding midfielders, Domenech took off an attacker to sure up the defense. France lost 2-0. They were eliminated. This absence of ambition alone warranted firing. Then there was the press conference.
Domenech claimed the layout of the team’s hotel, on a cul-de-sac, was responsible for their “closed” style of play. He then felt this was the opportune moment to propose marriage to his partner, Estelle Denis. This was a little awkward, since Denis is a French television presenter, who was hosting French coverage of the game. She did not accept on air. Despite this borderline insanity and calls for his ouster from the UEFA President, Domenech remained.
Defense First: Domenech is conservative. France will support the back four with two holding midfielders, most likely Real Madrid’s Lassana Diarra and Lyon’s Jeremy Toulalan. Bordeaux star Yoann Gourcuff should play ahead of them in “the Pirlo role” as a deep-lying playmaker.
The back four should be solid Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna at left and right back are the world’s best combo. France will need William Gallas to be healthy. He expects to be. Gallas was a terrible captain at Arsenal, but he’s a great central defender. Thomas Vermaelen had his poor positioning exposed without the Frenchman to cover for him. Gallas’ partner will probably be Eric Abidal out of position, over Squillaci or Boumsong. That’s not ideal, but it’s tolerable. Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris may be the world’s best.
Going Forward: France’s organizational issues, as pointed out by Thierry Henry, are up front. Despite their talent, they failed repeatedly to create chances and to capitalize on them during qualifying. They even struggled against the Faroe Islands. Domenech’s dilemma is who to play in the front three, as fielding Ribery, Henry and Anelka together, with all three cutting inside, demonstrably does not work. He has three friendlies to decide.
Besides his name, there’s no credible argument for Henry to be in the starting XI. He shouldn’t be in the squad. He has been a ghost of himself at Barcelona, scoring just three goals in 23 appearances. Down two against Inter Milan, Barcelona moved Gerard Pique to center forward rather than bring him on as a substitute. He will play over experienced hands in better form, such as Anelka, Saha and even Djirbil Cisse. He will play over younger athletic forwards, such as Benzema, Gomis and Loic Remy. Henry will play and presumably start down the middle.
That leaves the wings. Ribery, despite scandals and a subpar season, is one obvious choice. Florent Malouda is the other. Carlo Ancelotti has revived him at Chelsea. He’s been arguably the best player in the Premier League besides Wayne Rooney. Domenech has soured on him in the past, but seems to be changing his mind.
Conclusion: This isn’t a vintage French team. That said, they are the deepest, most professional and most talented team in this group. Even removing their first-choice XI, they would still be the most professional and most talented. It would take someone epically incompetent to not advance France to the knockout round. They may have found him.
Random Fact: The French are the skinniest people in Europe. They have the most sex. They produce arguably the best food, wine and art of any nation in the world. Despite this, they are the world’s greatest consumers of psychotropic drugs. They are also unofficial leaders in pouting and petulant shrugs.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile