France losing faith in great underachievers
Didier Deschamps' side are paying for bad habits, says Ian Hawkey
Back when he captained his country, Didier Deschamps would criticise the crowd at the Stade de France. Too many suits and ties, he reckoned, with buttoned-up, corporate manners, and not enough raucous chanting and singing.
He used to urge Paris supporters to amplify the atmosphere to the levels of, say, Marseille's Stade Velodrome.
In those days, Deschamps could boss France's public around. It was the age when French football pulled people of all backgrounds onto the Champs Elysees and heard them cry, 'Zidane for president!'
Deschamps could have run for prime minister, because he skippered the first and only France team to win the World Cup and followed up, in what was then an unprecedented sequence of successes, with a European Championship.
Thirteen years later, Deschamps, now head coach, will today urge the audience at the Stade de France to put heart and soul into backing Les Bleus for another unprecedented mission – to overturn a 2-0 deficit in a World Cup play-off.
He won't be bossing the public this time; he'll be beseeching them. He is aware that faith in Les Bleus' ability to reverse Friday's defeat against a buoyant, intelligent Ukraine has not led to a late stampede for the unsold tickets for the second leg, and is deeply conscious he is in charge of a group of sportsmen a great deal less popular than he and his fellow world champions once were.
Logically, the French have scant reason to believe in a comeback tomorrow.
The notion of Les Bleus as international heavyweights is based on nostalgia, and admiration of a development system that still ushers skilled individual players to the best clubs in Europe.
But the graduates of the envied Clairefontaine talent-factory mostly turn brittle when they perform together.
On form, Ukraine came into this play-off as favourites. They stand higher in the FIFA rankings than France, and even if those ratings sometimes throw up odd orders, they are a measuring tool that spooks most Frenchmen. It is now seven years since France beat, in a competitive international, any country ranked above them.
Their bad luck for this campaign was to have been grouped in the qualifiers with Spain, which always made a play-off the likeliest outcome.
But bad habits had contributed to anchoring France among the European nations without a top seed, and hence in danger of meeting a Spain or a Germany.
Since they reached the World Cup final in 2006, France have stumbled at the group phase of two of the three subsequent major tournaments, losing credit.
At the last World Cup finals, they went home with one point. But far worse happened in South Africa than the results.
There was the mutiny of Knysna – their Cape practice base – when all the players refused to train, the climactic stand-off in a series of disputes, including the sending home of Nicolas Anelka after his confrontation with then head coach Raymond Domenech.
Although Domenech was unloved, the status of Les Bleus in the eyes of the public took a hit. Sponsors of the national team renegotiated deals, downwards.
A stereotype of the French footballer as spoilt, bumptious egomaniac became a recurring media theme, one revisited again and again thanks a steady trickle of incidents. The tenure of Laurent Blanc, Domenech's successor, started with five senior players serving internal suspensions for their part in the Knysna uprising. It ended with Samir Nasri banned for abusing a reporter as France crashed out of Euro 2012.
Deschamps was barely in the seat when a group of U-21s, including Yann M'Vila – the midfielder establishing a place with the senior side – were handed Federation bans for having broken camp curfew to catch a taxi and travel well over 100 miles to go night-clubbing in Paris.
Patrice Evra, meanwhile, attended another Federation disciplinary hearing last month, and was allowed to play against Ukraine once the hierarchy had decided his scathing criticism, in an interview, of former players turned pundits – he called them "parasites" – was not so grave as to merit a ban.
Nasri and Evra are enduring some of the heaviest condemnation for the Ukraine setback. Rolland Courbis, the former Marseille coach whose steamroller opinions animate RMC radio's talkshow, roared that Les Bleus effectively "play with 10 men with Evra there".
France really did go down to 10 v 11 on Friday once Laurent Koscielny received a red card. Koscielny now faces a suspension that could drag into the World Cup should France achieve the improbable.
If they do not, a potentially surreal Tuesday night awaits in many urban areas. By coincidence, the last of the African World Cup play-offs will finish just as Les Bleus embark on their towering task. It is Algeria versus Burkina Faso, two countries with significant numbers of citizens resident in France.
Should Burkina Faso hold on to their first-leg 3-2 lead in Algeria, there's the scenario of thousands of Burkinabes celebrating a first ever World Cup on Parisian streets.
Were Algeria to triumph, large areas of Marseille, in particular, know full well to prepare for a very big noise indeed – the sort of atmosphere Deschamps wishes France's jaded supporters could create. (© Daily Telegraph, London)