PARIS - New France coach Laurent Blanc has told his players they must rediscover the values that once made them a proud and respected outfit as they prepare for a Euro 2012 qualifying campaign beginning against Belarus on Friday.
Zinedine Zidane attended training on Wednesday and in the inspiration behind France's 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 triumphs Blanc could hardly have found a more potent symbol of the qualities he is looking for.
The coach, who took over from Raymond Domenech after the World Cup fiasco, will eagerly look for signs of a fresh start in his first two competitive matches, against Belarus at Stade de France on Friday and Bosnia four days later in Sarajevo.
Obviously, Blanc wants clear improvement from France's dismal displays on their way to a group-stage exit from the World Cup and has enough talent in his squad to expect that.
But the most important thing, Blanc said, was for the players to understand what it meant to wear France's colours.
"The France team is not as essential to the players as it used to be and that has to change, otherwise there will always be problems," Blanc told reporters.
"To be able to exchange with players of another generation can only help," he added. "They can explain that despite having had an extraordinary career at club level, the thing that changed their lives was to play for France. That's a spirit the young players need to recapture."
Blanc, a world champion alongside Zidane in 1998, picked none of the World Cup squad for his first game in charge, a 2-1 friendly defeat by Norway last month in which France looked naive but full of enthusiasm.
For the upcoming qualifiers the coach has welcomed back nine players who were in South Africa, where France boycotted a training session in support of Nicolas Anelka after the striker was sent home for insulting Domenech.
Anelka, who was banned for 18 matches for his behaviour at the World Cup, will probably never play for France again, and a few others who escaped with milder bans, such as World Cup captain Patrice Evra, play no role in Blanc's immediate plans.
Blanc, however, cannot start from scratch, even though he is taking some risks with a handful of uncapped players on his list, among them promising young striker Kevin Gameiro.
"To have a young team is a good thing but it's not enough to be competitive at the highest level," Blanc told reporters. "We tried to come up with a mixture of talented youngsters and more experienced players who can guide them."
The new coach knows that France, who have dropped out of the top 20 in the FIFA rankings, have work to do before recapturing their place in the world's elite and must now remain humble even before facing the likes of Belarus and Bosnia.
They could do worse than look as an example to Zidane, who watched training on Wednesday before playing a game of soccer-tennis with a team made up of members of the staff and then had lunch with the players and chaired a meeting.
Zidane himself was discreet as usual and did not say much but the fact that the retired maestro won more acclaim than the current players during the public training session was a reminder that France have a long way to go.
Belarus coach Bernd Stange has been in confident mood, given the rebuilding work Blanc is faced with.
"I think that we have a good chance at the Stade de France," he told reporters. "The French are assembling a new team and it will take some time.
"France will be extremely motivated after their fiasco in South Africa so we have to be ready for that."
Stange said midfielder Alexander Hleb, who signed a one-year loan deal with English Premier League club Birmingham City this week after a disappointing spell at Barcelona, was not guaranteed a place in the starting line-up.
"Hleb hasn't played much recently, he just trained at Barcelona and it's not enough," Stange said.
France: Hugo Lloris; Bacary Sagna, Adil Rami, Philippe Mexes, Gael Clichy; Jeremy Menez, Abou Diaby, Alou Diarra, Florent Malouda; Guillaume Hoarau, Loic Remy.
Belarus: Anton Amelchenko; Alexander Martynovich, Igor Shitov, Sergei Sosnovsky, Sergei Omelyanchuk; Yan Tigorev, Alexander Kulchy, Alexander Hleb, Vyacheslav Hleb; Sergei Kornilenko, Vitali Kutuzov.comments