What are France's chances in the World Cup?
Despite an infamous handball, a call-girl scandal and an unpopular manager, the French team is in South Africa. What are their chances?
When Thierry Henry handled the ball and crossed for William Gallas to score an extra-time winner in France’s World Cup play-off against Ireland, the relief was palpable in the Stade de France.
At the end of a chilly winter’s night in Paris, the home side had scraped through – albeit in controversial circumstances - despite having been outplayed for much of the decisive match.
French fans were underwhelmed by the way their team had booked a ticket to South Africa but at least they had made it. After all, the two-legged play-off against the Irish last November brought to an end a laboured qualification campaign in which Serbia had comfortably finished ahead of France in their group.
Despite their qualification, the negativity surrounding the squad hasn’t gone away – though they do have a habit of shooting themselves in the foot.
French manager Raymond Domenech’s approach to communication is infamous and his name is booed by supporters at every game. Henry was also on the end of some harsh treatment from supporters during a dismal display against Spain in March.
Then in April, Franck Ribery, Sidney Govou and Karim Benzema were accused of sleeping with teenage call girl Zahia Dehar. That story took a further twist when it emerged that Dehar had written a letter to Domenech in which she asked him not to take into account her relations with the players when naming his World Cup squad.
After their friendly win over Costa Rica last month, however, Chelsea midfielder Florent Malouda told RFI the players were doing their best to win over the public ahead of their World Cup opener against Uruguay.
“There is a lot of expectation around our national team and if we don’t have the results there will be a lot of negativity,” he said. “So that’s why as a group we’re trying to change the spirit, the altitude at training and then to confirm that on the pitch.
“So that’s a start but we have to confirm that game after game. We know we’re going to be under a lot of pressure for the first game and we have to be ready.”
At times though, it seems like the current French set-up can do nothing right. The junior sports minister Rama Yade raised eyebrows this week when she criticised the decision to book the squad into an expensive luxury hotel for the competition, at a time when France is facing an economic crisis.
The French have also faced flak for failing to hold any public training sessions at their heavily-guarded base in Knysna. This is in contrast to the Danish national team, who are also staying in the same area and have proved much more open to the local population.
All of the off-field problems wouldn’t really matter if things were working out on the pitch. But of late they haven’t been.
France’s performance in a 2-0 defeat against Spain in March was so poor that Domenech was forced to rethink his tactics.
His new 4-3-3 formation worked well in the 2-1 win over Costa Rica but les Bleus then played out an unconvincing 1-1 draw in Tunisia and suffered an embarrassing defeat against China.
That lacklustre form has apparently led to some unrest within the squad. Ribery and Nicolas Anelka have found it hard to combine on the pitch, while Anelka, Gallas and the new captain Patrice Evra are said to have asked Domenech to change his strategy again.
The three senior players want to see Henry and Abou Diaby brought into the starting line-up instead of Lyon’s Sydney Govou and Bordeaux playmaker Yoann Gourcuff.
France have been here before of course. They faced similar criticism during the last World Cup, when they failed to sparkle in the group stages before beating Spain, Brazil and Portugal on the way to the final.
The difference this time is they don’t have World Cup winners like Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Fabien Barthez in their ranks. The current players are set to receive a bonus of close to 400,000 euros each if they manage to win the World Cup but it’s highly unlikely that the French Football Federation will have to pay out.
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