Euro 2012: Blanc's French revolution heals wounds of the past
Les Bleus' boss has revitalised a team that were a laughing stock two years ago, says Amy Lawrence
As the cameras cut from the action on the pitch to the substitute's bench during France's last warm-up match, Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema were caught chuckling like schoolboys who had been barked at by a teacher instructing them to stop laughing, an act which of course only serves to amplify the giggles.
It was not meant to be a symbolic gesture, but the hilarity on the touchline demonstrated the change in atmosphere since France last showed their face at an international tournament. Two years ago there was only resentment, rancour, rebellion. There was no levity, no place for lightness. To see Laurent Blanc's team full of high spirits -- and that was evident on the pitch too as Ribery and Benzema in particular had enjoyed their synchronicity during a 4-0 win over Estonia adorned with some handsome goals -- is to witness a team re-invented.
None of the squad of 23 who are about to get down to the serious business in Donetsk are under any illusions about the most basic thing required of them during this tournament. Regardless of how they fare on the pitch in terms of results, their effort and their demeanour need to be impeccable. The president of the French Federation, Noel Le Graet, has spoken of "a necessary rehabilitation".
Blanc seems to have successfully cleaned up the mess that had been strewn all over anyone that had anything to do with Les Bleus in 2010. The details of France's shambolic escapades in South Africa bear repeating, if only to appreciate the extent of the thorns he needed to untangle. On the pitch, for the second successive tournament France went home shamefully early, without winning a single match and with only one goal scored. Off it, the disrepute was even more extreme, as mutiny took hold.
Nicolas Anelka was sent home, the remaining players came out in sympathy and went on strike at their training base in Knysna, and Les Bleus slunk away as a national embarrassment. A poll run by Canal Plus split the blame fairly evenly between the players, their spiky coach Raymond Domenech, and the blundering Federation. Blanc had watched it all unfold from his holidays in Marrakech, thinking lord only knows what.
France had to make a clean break from the South Africa story, and there was nobody better equipped to pull together the fractured parts and regain all the lost goodwill than a man so loved by the public he is affectionately called Le President. Blanc, a defender of renowned composure who won the World Cup and European Championship, had earned his chance having built a decent reputation as a young coach with Bordeaux. But there were no real preparations for his unusual early weeks with the national team.
He proposed a one-match blanket ban on every player tainted by the South African debacle. The entire World Cup squad was absent for a friendly against Norway (France lost 2-1). The upshot, although it didn't necessarily seem so at the time, was that Blanc called up some players who had either been shunned by Domenech, such as Benzema, Nasri, Philippe Mexes and Jeremy Menez, and others who arrived with keenness to seize the opportunity such as Adil Rami, Yann M'Vila and Yohan Cabaye. In hindsight, that first squad was an important marker for the team Blanc would build.
All of those players have gone on to become important members of the team.
The difficulty for Blanc was the delicate task of finding a balance between the new generation and those relics of the old guard who could reasonably be re-integrated in the squad. The coach was unhappy with the auxiliary bans meted out to some of the main agitators in South Africa. Anelka's 18-match exclusion ended his international career, but for the likes of Patrice Evra (who had a five-match ban), Ribery (three) and Jeremy Toulalan (one), the situation was complex. Some critics felt they should never play for France again. Other observers noted that the country was not so well blessed with top-class players to jettison all their seasoned performers in one fell swoop.
All change? Not quite. But the shift has been substantial. From the team that started the 2010 World Cup, three players can expect be in the line-up against England tomorrow: Hugo Lloris, Evra (some might say a little fortunately) and Ribery. The remaining eight players from a grind of a goalless draw against Uruguay in Cape Town have not made the cut, either through injury (Bacary Sagna, Eric Abidal, Abou Diaby, Toulalan) or otherwise (William Gallas, Yoann Gourcuff, Sidney Govou, Anelka). If this has the feeling of a new dawn for France in tournament football then that is a blessing.
Building bridges became, perhaps, the biggest part of Blanc's job. He discussed what went on in South Africa with the returning members of the squad. When Blanc met with Evra, he told the defender: "If I had listened to all the people who were offering me advice, I would have cut my head off a long time ago." Blanc is a pragmatist. He acted in a controlled way, a non-emotional way, and followed his instincts to blend together a team out of the survivors of the Domenech regime, who bring their experience, and the newcomers, who bring their freshness.
Like many of the contenders going into this competition, there seems to be a disparity between the confidence in the defence and attack. Blanc is more than aware of it, and it is the area of the team which is of most concern ahead of the England game. There will be no complacency despite an excellent unbeaten run. France have never won a match at a European Championships without Michel Platini or Zinedine Zidane. It is an extraordinary statistic. Now would be the perfect time to start.
Blanc has instilled a sense of togetherness over and above any individual concerns. "When they put their talent at the service of the group, that changes everything," he says. "Take Karim [Benzema]. The talent was always there, he had it already for five or six years. The difference now is that he is one of Real Madrid's best players . . . In keeping the ball, in duels, in winning balls with his head, he has become a complete player. It is the same for the young Menez or the young [Hatem] Ben Arfa. They have the talent and the potential. But that is not enough."
Out of the embers of the World Cup inferno, a new-look France has emerged.
Significantly, there have been improvements across the whole structure. The former Federation chief, who was rooted in amateur football, has been replaced by a professional businessman, politician and strong leader in Le Graet. The former coach, with his notorious idiosyncrasies, has given way to an authoritative and respected football man. The team has been refreshed. At last France have a set-up that is well organised and functions well.
Importantly, Blanc has an assistant who also assumes a vital role. Jean-Louis Gasset, who was his trusted sidekick at Bordeaux, is responsible for a considerable amount of the technical duties. In some ways the relationship is reminiscent of the way Jurgen Klinsmann worked with Joachim Loew in rebuilding Germany for the 2006 World Cup. The differences are that Blanc is more involved in the training than Klinsmann, and that Gasset is every inch a behind-the-scenes man who would never care for a career as a No 1. The rapport between Blanc and Gasset is strong and extremely effective.
The only difficulty Blanc has faced over the past couple of years was his involvement in the quotas controversy, when the minutes of discussions about controlling the number of white players compared to dual-citizenship players were leaked. Blanc was cleared during an investigation by the FFF.
Despite the overriding positives that have come out of his reign, Blanc's contract is due to expire at the end of the Euros. Talks are pencilled in for early July, and there is a degree of uncertainty. But France have learned the hard way not to take anything for granted in international football.
Sunday Indo Sport