Country of love fed up of dull France

KNYSNA, South Africa - France, proud of their reputation as the country of love, are certainly not living up to it these days when it comes to their national football team.

The days when the glitzy Champs Elysees avenue was swarming with people wildly celebrating France's 1998 World Cup triumph are long gone and the side preparing for the June 11-July 11 finals in South Africa could be excused for feeling let down.

Two years of uninspired performances have taken their toll, not to mention an uncompromising coach revelling in controversy, a few scandals and players perceived as distant if not arrogant.

"It's been going on for two years and it's certainly not making things easier for us," forward Sidney Govou told reporters on Monday when asked what is was like to be hated.

"We have been criticised quite a lot but it's not always a good thing to listen to what's being said outside," he added. "We try to find the strength we need within ourselves."

The country's discontent with a few men in shorts was illustrated again on Sunday when sports junior minister Rama Yade said France had picked a hotel far too flashy as their World Cup base.

The same day 1998 world champion Marcel Desailly wrote in a column in a South African newspaper that France would not survive the group stage and on Monday, a poll showed only 19 percent believing their team would lift the trophy.

The survey, conducted for popular daily Le Parisien, was the latest of many showing France no longer stood behind their team.

TURNED SOUR

The love story between the country and the national side turned sour when France made an early exit from Euro 2008 and what has happened since has done nothing to reverse the trend.

Coach Raymond Domenech, never interested in being popular, was controversially left in charge after that flop and has kept annoying people with his trademark mix of undecipherable comments and dry remarks. To make matters worse, his side kept struggling on the pitch, needing that infamous Thierry Henry handball to qualify for the World Cup through a playoff at the expense of Ireland.

Several players, including the talismanic Franck Ribery, were then heard as witnesses by police investigating a prostitution network.

The news that France were staying at a secluded fortress for the rich and famous was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Since arriving in South Africa, Domenech has told reporters he came to speak to them only because he was obliged to and the players have not been good at signing autographs.

It would not take much, however, for the romantic Frenchmen to fall in love with their team again. A few autographs here and there and a couple of spirited performances should do the trick.

"The media say the supporters do not believe in us but I know they do and I also know other teams respect and fear us," Patrice Evra, the new France captain, told reporters during the team's World Cup preparations.

"Everybody seems to believe that we're going on a safari, that we are not among the favourites, but our pride can help us go places."

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