Domenech revels in play-off controversy

PARIS - Qualifying for a World Cup courtesy of a blatant handball is not a problem for France coach Raymond Domenech, who has always revelled in controversy. Domenech's first comments after captain Thierry Henry handled the ball in the build-up to the late William Gallas goal that sent France to South Africa at the expense of Ireland on Wednesday was that he did not see it all properly.

A while later, he offered no apologies, although he did praise Ireland for a spirited performance in their 2-1 aggregate playoff defeat by the former world and European champions.

"To go to university, you need A-levels but you don't need to have passed them with honours," Domenech said. "You have your A-levels, so you can go. That's where we stand."

Such statements were not a surprise to the France fans who had heard the same man ask his partner, television journalist Estelle Denis, to marry him immediately after France lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup final. An uncompromising defender with a thick moustache in his playing days, Domenech, whose name has been booed at all matches since he was left in charge after France's Euro 2008 flop, has never made any effort to make himself popular.

When he played for Olympique Lyon and they visited arch-rivals St Etienne, he was famous for shooting the ball against the advertising boards below the section packed with the most faithful St Etienne fans during warm-up, just to annoy them.

"I needed that," he once said. NO TITLE

With only eight caps to his name and not a single title as a coach despite a long spell with France's Under-21 side, Domenech has faced a tough task ever since taking over the team in 2004.

He has not done everything wrong, however.

His decision to convince Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram to come out of retirement in 2005 paid off handsomely, the team qualifying for the 2006 World Cup and going all the way to the final against Italy.

The 57-year-old with the bushy eyebrows also took risks by blooding players such as Franck Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff at international level, long before they became what they are today.

The stubborn Domenech, however, lent himself to criticism with other choices such as overlooking David Trezeguet or using Karim Benzema, arguably France's most gifted striker, only as a substitute.

His cautious tactics, despite having plenty of fine creative players with a taste for attacking football in his squad, are another aspect most fans find difficult to understand.

With all the talent they have, France are perfectly capable of going a long way in South Africa, even if they did very little to suggest that against Ireland. THEATRE LOVER

"We suffered the way whe have suffered for the last two years but the important thing is we all want to go the World Cup and show something there," Domenech said.

"I'm convinced this team have a date with destiny in 2010."

A theatre lover with a passion for astrology, Domenech is described by those who know him well as clever and charming. The pressure is still on him after a dismal performance against Ireland, with Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot telling French radio station RTL: "If we continue like this, we will not stay in South Africa very long. He (Domenech) has plenty of work to do if he is to take the team to South Africa."

There is little doubt, however, that Domenech will once again save his skin and go all the way to next year's finals.

"There is no problem with Domenech," French Football Federation (FFF) vice-president Noel Le Graet told RTL.

"I have a lot of esteem for him, he is very courageous and the players love him. Not only does he have a contract but a coach who has qualified his team must be on the bench during the World Cup."