The End of the Terror and the Start of the New Napoleonic Era

It is difficult to forget France’s now infamous 2010 World Cup. Many words can be used to describe it: shambolic, disastrous, disgraceful and egregious are a few that spring to mind. Even with their 2006 World Cup, in which they reached the final, in mind, the Raymond Domenech era is one better forgotten than remembered for the French. After that winless, mutinous tournament, the captain of their World Cup winning team of 1998 was given the chance to lead his nation to further glory, as coach.

 

Although things did not start as rosily as they had hoped and expected for Laurent Blanc. As a means of punishment for their actions in South Africa, every member of the 23 man squad who attended the tournament were banned for one game (or more for the more notable offenders), which was to be Blanc’s first, a friendly against Norway. In spite of the fact that even with 23 of the better players missing, they were still comfortably able to put out a respectable side, they fell to a 2-1 loss. And while 18 of those 23 were available for their next match, which was the start of their EURO 2012 qualification campaign, another, more embarrassing loss came, this time at home to Belarus. Where it had seemed that Domenech was the cause of all the problems, perhaps this had not been the case.

 

But since that match, which came on 3rd September 2010, France have not lost a game, in competitive or friendly capacities. They restarted with a win against Bosnia-Herzegovina and while a side with the ability of France’s should not be finding teams outside of the world’s top 10 too difficult, a young and very talented Bosnia side, who were playing at home, would have fancied their chances against a team who had not registered a competitive win since November 2009 (the first leg of the notorious play-off with Ireland). France came through as ordinarily they would, in a rather unremarkable 2-0 win, but, at risk of cliché, it started their regeneration. They would pick up two further 2-0 wins in the qualifiers against Romania and Luxembourg, but greater tests lay ahead in their approaching friendlies, with the challenges of England and, more potently, Brazil facing them.

 

They did not so much come through unscathed as they did glowing, or as much as one can glow from the effect of victories in friendlies. France looked supreme in the game with England, dominating possession and making an admittedly rather experimental England look rather foolish in a 2-1 win, which did not reflect the ease of the visitors’ victory. Brazil were to provide a far stronger opposition, but they too would be beaten, as a Karim Benzema goal gave them a deserved 1-0 win.

 

As they gained momentum, it was clear to see that the team was changing from the one of which Laurent Blanc had initially taken charge. Two players who had been shunned from the squad by Domenech – Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema – were apparently benefiting from their extended summer break and both having excellent seasons for Arsenal and Real Madrid respectively, while another who was snubbed by the astrology fan was Philippe Mexes, who had also begun to force his way back into the national setup. Meanwhile, a core of new players had begun to emerge, as they always have done for France. The likes of Laurent Koscielny, Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye, Yann M’Vila and Jérémy Ménez were now emerging as viable national team players, and others would follow suit. There was a spine of extraordinary talent starting to form for France and it remained relatively youthful, with all the aforementioned players being under 25 and many others of a similar age were growing in stature and ability.

 

Draws with Belarus, Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina were the only hiccups in the remainder of their qualification, which saw them finish top of their group. By the time this had happened, the 2011/12 season was very much underway, and new candidates for places presented themselves, and many of those who had done so earlier only strengthened their arguments for earning a spot. Mathieu Valbuena, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Olivier Giroud had all started the season very well for their clubs, as had Hatem Ben Arfa, which softened the fears created by Samir Nasri’s new-found role on the Manchester City bench and Yoann Gourcuff’s being secretly replaced by his considerably less talented twin brother.

 

There was another difficult task ahead of them in the form of a friendly, this time against my (and many others’) tip to win the EUROs, Germany. A lineup which featured Débuchy, M’Vila, Cabaye, Nasri, Valbuena and Giroud won 2-1 in an extremely convincing fashion against a Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger-less Germany. Their next friendly would, against Iceland, be the first in preparation for the finals and was a chance for many players to prove they were worthy of making the final squad of 23. Though it seemed some had forgotten this when they were 2-0 down after half an hour, looking defensively atrocious (especially Patrice Evra), prompting many a comment that the two players to emerge with most credit from France’s first half were Laurent Koscielny and Gael Clichy.

 

After the break France had a renewed vigour and intensity, which soon paid off when Débuchy bundled the ball in after it fell to him at the far post. The two substitutes who made an outstanding impact were Franck Ribery and Giroud, who exchanged a glorious one-two to create the equaliser. Sprinting inside from the left, Ribery gave the Montpellier forward the ball, and he returned in a deft, nonchalant chip back to the Bayern Munich winger, who finished coolly. The third came from a lobbed ball to Giroud from Mexes, which he knocked back down while running in the opposite direction, straight into Rami’s path, who finished precisely to give France the win, extending their run of unbeaten games to 19 games.

 

To a degree, the game exposed their defensive frailties, but Koscielny, Clichy and M’Vila will be given their chances to impress on Thursday, in their friendly against Serbia, by which time the full 23-man squad will be announced. They are by no means favourites and have not been dealt a particularly easy group. If Roy Hodgson manages to successfully implement the tactics he wants to with England they will be frustrating for France, and Sweden and Ukraine will be difficult for them to beat. But with the ability within the squad and the momentum they are carrying with them, they have the potential to slip beneath the mainstream radar and surprise many who still remember the shambles of 2010 and associate them with the completely different outfit whom they will meet.

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