French future already looks brighter

“Here, perhaps, is the future of the Bleus”. That was the tentative headline with which Le Monde greeted the French Under-19 side’s progress to the European Championship final.

Still stunned by a World Cup campaign that set a gloriously dysfunctional standard by which all future ineptitude in the tournament will be judged, even Le Monde’s seasoned journalists dared not hope for too much.

But the Under-19s victory over Spain, coming at the end of a week in which new manager Laurent Blanc suspended all 23 mutineers in South Africa for his first game in charge, was a superb line in the sand exercise.

Le Foot magazine, with a taste for a play on colours that is quintessentially French, recently published a dossier noir (black) on the Raymond Domenech era and a dossier blanc on the bright new era which Domenech’s successor, a man known informally to his old Manchester United teammates as Larry White, is expected to usher in. Le Foot’s front cover photo made Domenech look like a silent movie villain sniggering into his sleeve at all the agony he has caused.

Outwardly France seems the same as ever. The queues outside the bakers are as long, the nation’s mysterious reverence for the questionable comic genius of Jerry Lewis shows no signs of waning and the papers are, once again, full of mysterious misdoings in high places in a scandal Le Monde invariably refers to as l’affaire Betencourt (a low grade, but usefully ambiguous affair in which nobody really agrees who gave what money to whom and for what purpose but everybody bar the man himself agrees it’s Nicolas Sarkozy’s fault).

But the catastrophe in South Africa has prompted much anguish, parliamentary interrogation (nonchalantly pursued despite threats from FIFA), a summit between Sarkozy and Thierry Henry, the threat of a £10 million lawsuit from kit sponsor Adidas and the resignation of Jean-Piere Escalettes, who has still not been replaced as president of the French FA.

Travelling through northwest France over the last fortnight I was struck by how few visual traces of the last World Cup remained. It was as if the tournament had been airbrushed from the streets.

Laurent is actually already starting to look a bit like Mad Ray...

I was startled when I finally saw a French boy drinking Coke from a can adorned with a cut out of Franck Ribery the player So Foot magazine identified as the player mainly responsible for “du fiasco bleu”. Not that the magazine let Domenech off, publishing a damning piece headlined “Requiem for a clown”.

The startling aspect of So Foot’s coverage, for English fans, is how many of its damning criticisms of Domenech apply to Fabio Capello’s management in South Africa. The Italian may not be paranoid or incompetent but like Domenech he could credibly be accused of poor communication, poor psychology, poor strategy and poor management in the 2010 World Cup, the tournament by which he had hoped to be judged.

And therein may lie hope for the future of French football. The World Cup made it melodramatically, emphatically clear that three major European football nations had some serious rebuilding to do: England, France and Italy.

Of the three, France have acted most decisively. Calcio’s problems may yet prove too big for new Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli to solve single-handed, though he may improve matters, while English football seems, despite the right noises from the likes of Trevor Brooking, to be in denial and clutching at any straw – the loss of Wayne Rooney’s form being the latest excuse kindly offered by the ubiquitous Gerard Houllier – to face the awful truth.

France have had a real national debate, earmarked a new direction and a new philosophy under Blanc (who has, commendably, said he will quit of France don’t qualify for Euro 2012) and found some new heroes in Gael Kakuta and Gueida Fofana.

The Under-19 success, hailed as a national redemption, may prove a false dawn. (Some coaches privately fear that France is no longer producing the quality or quality of youngsters that enabled it to dominate football in the late 1990s).

But this small victory has softened the blow of South Africa and makes it harder for the National Front to turn the World Cup catastrophe into a barely coded political message about the alleged dangers of a polyglot society.

For French football, the future already looks a bit brighter than it did at the end of June when a French philosopher called Alain Finkielkraut – no I’m not making this up – likened Les Bleus to “a gang of hooligans with the morals of the mafia”.

In South Africa, captain Patrice Evra unwisely suggested that France had become a “small football nation”. Last week, with Blanc’s courageous stand and the Under-19’s triumph, French football just got a bit bigger.

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