Blanc goes FBI in search for leader

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October 11, 1995 is a date that resonates in French football’s collective consciousness.

After all, it promised to be a particularly dark and unforgiving night for the beleaguered national team. Both hammer and nail were poised at the ready to seal the coffin on Aimé Jacquet’s time in charge of Les Bleus. The funereal setting was the Ghencea stadium in Bucharest where France needed to beat Romania to keep their hopes of qualifying for Euro 96 alive.  

Les Bleus had not been to any major international competition for five years. It was a nadir that was barely comprehensible just over a decade after Michel Platini and the carré magique had inspired France to victory at the European Championship. But once again La Marseillaise was being whistled and it looked as though France were in for a gut-wrenching spell in the international wilderness much as they had been between 1966 and 1978.  

Les Bleus had drawn the home leg 0-0, and expectation was so low as to be resolutely pessimistic. But goals from Christian Karembeu, Youri Djorkaeff and Zinedine Zidane capped a fantastic performance as Jacquet’s young and inexperienced side - six of whom didn’t even have 10 caps - recorded a 3-1 victory that would turn things around for France in a way no one thought possible. 

“It’s the match that changed everything,” Didier Deschamps later told France Football. “The team and Aimé had been criticised a lot, and, if we didn’t win down there in Romania, we could have kissed goodbye to the Euros. And if we didn’t go to the Euros, we would have changed coach without a doubt, the group would have exploded and we would’ve had to rebuild all over again, like after the failure in 1993. In other words, even though we’ll never know, there probably wouldn’t have been a 1998 or a 2000.”

Jacquet was feeling the pressure back in 1995

Laurent Blanc no doubt cast his mind back to that result in the days preceding Romania’s visit to the Stade de France for their Euro 2012 qualifier on Saturday night. The nation’s hopes of making the finals in Poland and Ukraine weren’t yet in jeopardy – the dumbfounded head-scratching that followed an unlucky opening day defeat to Belarus did after all presage a 2-0 victory worthy of a pat on the back over Bosnia in Sarajevo.

But such was the post-traumatic stress that engulfed Les Bleus this summer, the mood surrounding the camp was still fragile. This prompted Blanc to acknowledge a Mourinho-ism: “Who knows only football, knows nothing about football.”

Consequently, the former Bordeaux coach’s first two months in charge of France has been spent mostly working on the intangibles like mentality, team-building and leadership rather than focusing explicitly on tactics. “It was Michael Jordan who said talent is enough to win a match, but team spirit is necessary to win trophies,” Blanc opined.

So when Karim Benzema, Abou Diaby and Lassana Diarra all turned up late for training last week, he saw another opportunity to develop team spirit. Blanc fined the trio €1000 each, but also made them sing a song in front of the rest of the squad in a punishment that served as a bonding exercise.

Joking aside, the creation of a group and the identification of a leader has become a priority for Le President. Until Saturday’s game, Blanc had experimented with three different captains – Roma’s Philippe Mexès, Chelsea’s Florent Malouda and Bordeaux’s Alou Diarra. The search stepped up last week when he invited an as yet unnamed ‘profiler’ to Clairefontaine to assess his players, each of whom were given a multiple choice test consisting of no fewer than 50 questions.

L’Équipe, for one, was sceptical with one outraged editorial even asking why a ‘profiler’ had been brought in considering that the role calls to mind FBI agents looking for nefarious serial killers with a penchant for taking body parts as trophies and storing them in refrigerators.  However, not all were critical of Blanc’s so-called Eileen Drewery moment. “Laurent has understood that the human exists in football,” wrote Vikash Dhorasoo in his blog.

When quizzed about it himself, Blanc said: “Don’t think we went into a dark room with someone and lay down on a yellow couch. The players got involved without having any second thoughts and I did the same work on myself 15 days ago.” Yet the pop psychology didn’t stop there. 

Blanc's discovery of humans in football was a revelation...

Having not won in Paris for nearly a year, Blanc was unequivocal. “The Stade de France must become the Stade des Joueurs,” he claimed.  The solution was relatively straightforward: two training sessions were scheduled there – one on the eve of the match and one the day after- in an effort to get a young team used to the site of France’s greatest ever victory, a constant reminder for some of just how far Les Bleus have fallen.

After getting the players’ minds right, Blanc now had a slight selection headache. In defence, Mexès and Lille’s trained mechanic Adil Rami have become his first choice centre-back pairing, while up front, Benzema is still the favourite to lead the line, partly by virtue of the fact that aside from Jean Nicolas, a striker from the 1930s, he has scored a record number of goals for France for a 22-year-old.

Despite Benzema’s tardiness and his unashamed ignorance of Romania - as was amply demonstrated when he named Adrian Mutu as a threat to France even though the Fiorentina striker has been serving a ban for doping since the spring – his performance against Bosnia last month reminded everyone of his natural talent for finding the net. 

The question mark hung over the midfield, where Blanc had Samir Nasri and Yoann Gourcuff available for selection for the first time since his appointment in July. Here was the solution to France’s problems in the final third; a pair of lock-pickers capable of playing together like Giresse and Platini or Djorkaeff and Zidane.

But the timing wasn’t right. Despite Blanc’s assertion that ‘a ball in the air is a ball lost’ - indicating his preference for a technical short-passing game - the accent at the moment falls on substance, not style and stopping the rot. 

So when the teamsheet was read out, Gourcuff found himself on the bench whereas Nasri was in the starting line-up, this time in a 4-2-3-1 and not the 4-3-3 France had deployed in Sarajevo. Diarra was named as captain for the second time under Blanc, something Malouda could have cause for feeling aggrieved about being an undisputed regular for club and country, which Mexès certainly can’t say for himself at Roma and Diarra has arguably yet to become for France. 

As the team strode out on the pitch, the atmosphere felt right. The players finally joined the crowd in belting out La Marseillaise having been told to learn the lyrics last month. And the initial signs were certainly positive. After a tetchy start, France began to dominate, keeping Romania pegged back in their own half, but creating little in the way of clear-cut chances. Clearly sensing a repeat of the ‘Belarus accident’, the fans grew restless and jeered France off the pitch at half-time.

Their fear nearly proved psychosomatic after the break, as George Florescu stretched Hugo Lloris into an acrobatic save, scaring France into life. Marseille winger Mathieu Valbuena would go close just before the hour mark, seeing the excellent Costel Pantelimon tip his shot on to the bar. Nasri would work him again a minute later, but Romania refused to be cowed hitting the post through Cristian Sapunaru after 71 minutes.

Whereas Raymond Domenech would frustratingly lean against his dugout with his arms folded in hapless resignation, Blanc seized the moment to impose his will on the game. He made a string of substitutions in the final 20 minutes, taking off Valbuena, Nasri and Benzema for Loïc Rémy, Gourcuff and Dimitri Payet respectively. The Three Musketeers would conspire to win the game for France.

The deadlock was broken in the 83rd minute when Diarra sent a long ball over the scrum-capped Cristian Chivu and challenged Rémy to beat the Romanian for pace, which he did. The 23-year-old Marseille striker, whose career looked in doubt only last month when a heart defect was picked up in a routine medical, opened his account with a cool finish, scoring his side’s first goal at the Stade de France since last November.

In essence, though, the strike was quite anti-Blanc in its conception as Diarra’s pass was not on the floor, but in the air where hypothetically it could be lost while Rémy had actually poo-pooed the need for a profiler earlier in the week. “Some players are more fragile than others,” he said. “For me, itn’s not a necessity. I manage fine by myself.”

Nevertheless, the second and final goal was the product of a wonderfully worked piece of skill from Payet, who transferred his fine club form with Saint-Étienne to his country with effortless aplomb. The 23-year-old debutante was played in down the right-hand side in the 93rd minute, turned his marker inside out, twisting his blood so as to leave him on the floor.

Like all the great football alchemists, Payet created time and space for himself to pick a pass for Gourcuff who smashed the ball home practically from the penalty spot.    

It capped a fine 2-0 win, and a convincing one too that was especially welcome after the diet of dour served up under Domenech. “It was a pleasure,” read L’Équipe’s front-page headline on Sunday. The paper’s follow up piece was equally smiley in its title: “Life is beautiful.”

Les Bleus are now top of Group D with a one-point lead over Belarus and Albania. Tuesday’s match against Luxembourg is an opportunity to extend that advantage. Even so, Blanc is keen not to get carried away, insisting that everyone’s feet remain on the ground and that they maintain their focus and perspective. After all, France are still walking away from the wreckage of a bus crash in Knysna and the road to recovery is a long one.

But just like 15 years ago today when a win over Romania laid a foundation and ‘changed everything’, there is a renewed sense of hope again that Saturday night’s victory will at least help Les Bleus turn a corner and put South Africa definitively behind them.