by Jack Heaney
If England fans believe the last 15 years were eventful, one only has to glance at the recently expelled French team to see that our drama pales in comparison to that of Les Bleus. For while we and our roaring three lions have suffered the usual heartbreak, blame game and penalty misses that always accompany the camp, the French have supped from the sweetest cup yet also choked from the most poisonous chalice.
The French, in the last 15 years, have seen it all and then some. After hardnosed, worrying doubts about their chances circa ’98, they ended up duelling with Brazil and emerging victorious, embracing and lifting the coveted Jules Rimet trophy on home soil. Two years later, they lifted the competition that as of last night they will be kissing goodbye; David Trezeguet netting the golden goal that won the European Championship to secure the prestige of being both World and European champions and a place for the Golden generation on the previously rather bare mantelpiece of French football. Zidane, Thuram, Petit, Pires, Barthez, Desailly; the list of glorious, world-class footballers that also happen to be French hits the floor and rolls for miles.
Yet, after an abysmally catastrophic 2002 Asian adventure-turned-nightmare, being beaten by the Greeks in 2004 and a 2006 World Cup final more famous for the superhuman power of Zinedine Zidane’s head then the football on display, it was 2010 where the real cracks – and embarrassment –widened. Nicholas Anelka’s expletive-ridden outburst was the straw that broke the French camel’s back. The refusal to train; the dour football; the hatred aimed at Raymond Domenech and the alleged bullying of Gourcouff by Ribery and others. The French were in chaos and a defining moment came in the defeat to South Africa: Domenech simply outstretched his hands and let them fall limply to his sides. What could he do? What did you expect? Just how did we get here?
The French team were in chaos – in rebellion with ignominy and opprobrium everywhere – and from the ashes emerged the laconically graceful Lauren Blanc. Effortlessly stylish, Blanc was a steadfast figure in the wondrous French side captivated so many. A phoenix who plied his elegant defensive trade with Manchester United for two seasons, Blanc is a heady memory of those days forgotten. The days of success and pride. The days of French power. His job was not necessarily to qualify for Euro 2012, but restore the fallen crest of French football. To fill cracks with cement rather than a papery absurdity that resulted in such chaotic disinterest and contempt in South Africa.
His first movement? To suspend every French footballer who attended the World Cup shambles and had such an injurious effect. The Blanc movement could not be made without paralysing the movement of those who caused such upheaval. The result? A first place finish in Group D. Along with friendly wins over Brazil and Germany. With 21 points from a possible 30, Laurent Blanc has in some ways succeeded in what was a hostile dressing room with serious disenchantment among fans and journalists alike.
It is not possible to judge France without mulling over how dire their recent history has been yet, simultaneously, we must not let previous failures make anything more of an average tournament. From rebellion to respite: France were and are much better than the given performance against Spain. They simply should not have been that inanimate or insensate.
Many actually tipped this French side to be the dark horses of Euro 2012. With a forward line of worldly renowned talents such as Benzema, Nasri and Ribery – and rawer starlets M’Vila and Hatem Ben Arfa – Les Bleus are a talented side. Yet after so wastefully losing to Sweden, heavyweights Spain could have so easily been avoided. And when Spain were tackled they were tackled in the wrong way: Spain are no strangers to defensive opposition. Yet with the previously mentioned forward line, they could have been less familiar with a fast and skilled attack.
It is not so much that France lost, but the way in which losing came about: even in the second half when bitty spells of French play were rattling Spain – whose fluid passing game was unhinged slightly – the French simply could not capitalise. The final 10 minutes epitomised the overall performance – distant, second-best and almost as if they were in respite; resting and hiding from Spain in the pursuit of eventually creating a clear cut chance that, ultimately, their midfield and attack were too blunt to cultivate. If Blanc is to take over at White Hart Lane, he will leave his nation with disappointment.
The last two years have seen a cohesive French unit step away from the embarrassment of 2010 and play some fine football. Yet the disgrace of what France were cannot continue to make what France are now seem better. With a strange Euro campaign in which Les Bleus resembled an elderly figure trying to stir from a post-rebellion respite, France were at best average against Spain and at worst vapid. While impressive against England and Ukraine, the stylish football France can provide was lacking. The optimist would remark that steady improvement from unsteady chaos is always to be embraced; and it must be. Laurent Blanc and his camp have righted many radical wrongs stifling the team. Yet considering the unnecessary aspect of facing Spain in the first place, providing such a bland performance against a side that are World Champions – yet also champions who can be hurt with the right weaponry which France do indeed possess – and the journey from rebellion thus far must be lauded for the horrors it has left behind, yet also frowned at for the way Les Bleus limped out so insipidly.