France to hand fate to coffee stirrer addict

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PARIS - Once Raymond Domenech's turbulent reign ends after the World Cup, France will hand over their fate to a man famous for chewing white plastic coffee stirrers and kissing shaven heads.

Laurent Blanc, nicknamed the President for his calm authority, is also remembered for his leadership skills as an awe-inspiring defender who helped France lift the World Cup in 1998, although he was suspended for the final.

Admired for all his achievements but sometimes perceived as distant and cold, if not arrogant, Blanc, who is not expected to be officially named France coach before the World Cup starts on June 11, will nevertheless be much more popular than the uncompromising Domenech, who could never win the fans' hearts.

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During the 1998 campaign, Blanc provided a symbol for France's successful run by planting a kiss on goalkeeper Fabien Barthez's shaven head after each of his side's wins.

Now 44, the former Inter Milan and Manchester United player also helped Les Bleus win the 2000 European championship title and has enjoyed a brilliant start to his managerial career.

He got his first coaching job at Girondins Bordeaux in 2007 and led the Aquitaine side to a Ligue 1 and League Cup double last season, prompting the federation to finally consider him as Domenech's successor.

The tall, bespectacled, Blanc, who hardly ever loses his cool but keeps nervously chewing his trademark coffee stirrers while standing by the touchline during matches, was a candidate for the France job in 2004.

He was even regarded as the favourite but Domenech was the French football federation's (FFF's) preferred choice because he had more experience.

GOLDEN GOAL

Former France sweeper Blanc, who scored the golden goal in a tense last 16 game against Paraguay at the 1998 World Cup, was also turned down by several clubs after he ended his playing career in 2003.

"They were all saying I was not experienced enough and it quickly became annoying," said Blanc.

He did not hesitate when Bordeaux president Jean-Louis Triaud asked him to replace Brazilian Ricardo in 2007.

The Girondins finished runners-up in Ligue 1 in Blanc's first season before clinching the title in 2009 after recording a record 11 straight victories.

"He has a lot of experience at the highest level, he played in great clubs," said Bordeaux midfielder Alou Diarra. "We all know what we owe him."

Blanc's nomination will also have a sweet taste for France 98, an association created by the World Cup winners, who have been lobbying against Domenech, especially since Les Bleus went out in the first round of Euro 2008.

Didier Deschamps, who captained France to their 1998 and 2000 triumphs, believes Blanc is the right man for the job.

"He is a good choice, a very good choice," he said.

ELEGANT SWEEPER

Blanc quickly established himself as an elegant sweeper after starting his playing career as an attacking midfielder with Montpellier, scoring 77 goals in 251 appearances.

Following a brief stint at Napoli in 1991/92, Blanc came back to France and played for Nimes, St Etienne and AJ Auxerre, winning a league and cup double with them in 1996.

He then moved to Barcelona after being spotted by Johan Cruyff but the experience turned sour after the Dutch manager was sacked the very day Blanc agreed to join.

A year later he moved to Olympique Marseille, where he earned his nickame 'The President', although he did not win a title with the Provence side, making a costly blunder in their 3-0 defeat by Parma in the 1999 UEFA Cup final.

Blanc won the Inter Milan Player of the Year award in 2000 in the first of two seasons at the Italian club before joining Manchester United.

He was criticised for some poor performances in his first months at Old Trafford before winning the Premier League title in 2003, the year he called it quits.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who has strong links with Blanc, advised him against taking the France job.

"I think he is too young to become a national team coach," the 68-year-old said earlier this year.

"I think Laurent has a lot of things to do before taking this kind of role. This is his first season as a champion and managing his team in the Champions League. He should stay at Bordeaux."

It is now too late for such reservations and Blanc is being thrown in the deep end, where he has everything to prove.

"Blanc proved he was able to be in charge at club level but coaching a national team is a different job", warned Domenech,

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