French annus horribilis ends with echoes of past and promise for future

L’Équipe billed it as the 100 years squabble, a century of fierce sporting rivalry seasoned inevitably with the history that links England and France so intrinsically as noisy neighbours.

“Never forget Agincourt,” read one editorial, while another predictably mentioned Waterloo, both famous French defeats. And yet the psychology, something Laurent Blanc values so much, was clear for all to see. The country’s pride was still stinging.

“To interest a Frenchman in a boxing match, you must tell him that his national honour is at stake,” wrote André Maurois. “To interest an Englishman in a war, you must suggest to him that it resembles a boxing match.”

A friendly this clearly wasn’t, even if Frank Leboeuf said “When you hear God Save the Queen you feel English.” The undeniable French influence at Arsenal and Chelsea was cited as evidence of a footballing Entente Cordiale. But in all honesty it has been more of a rapprochement.

David Ginola recalled the amateurism at Newcastle United in the 1990s. “Some bus trips home lasted five or six hours,” he smiled. “We often stopped en route to eat fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.” Emmanuel Petit admitted that he knew he’d landed in England when Carlton Palmer tried to “cut off” his leg in a match against Southampton, breaking his shin guards.

The gloves officially came off, at least among the French media, when Fabio Capello’s press conference on Tuesday focused primarily on the Royal engagement and England’s 2018 World Cup bid. “The indifference of the British journalists towards the French team” was duly noted, as was the fact no translator was provided.

“The breakfast available to journalists gave some idea of the sense of British hospitality,” scoffed an article on L’Équipe’s website, which no doubt reinforces French stereotypes as much as English ones.

Blanc was doing his best to be diplomatic, though. “It’s still the England team,” he said. “They are better than us in the FIFA world rankings. I think that this team is part of the top 10 European teams. It’s not the case with us.” Even so, the French weren’t going to roll over. “There is not the same pressure for a result than in an official match,” he added. “I hope that it’s a good match. It’s prestigious. Interesting to play in of course. Interesting to win.”

Blanc was under no illusion as to the moment this encounter afforded him. The 44-year-old only played once against England – at Wembley on February 10 1999, when France incredibly still had to prove that they were worthy of their World Cup win.

Roger Lemerre had just taken over from Aime Jacquet and was remembered for being one of the ‘choirboys’ who had suffered a chastening 5-0 defeat to England 30 years earlier. France had never previously done better than a 2-2 draw at Wembley in 1951, but this time it would be different.

Didier Deschamps called it the “perfect match”. He also later described Nicolas Anelka as “our Ronaldo” and with good reason. The 19-year-old scored a stunning brace of goals, his first coming off a wonderful assist from Zinedine Zidane.

The then Arsenal striker could have bagged a third too if the woodwork hadn’t denied him in a way it didn’t Geoff Hurst in 1966. France won emphatically 2-0. The performance was exalted as the best of that era, and Blanc would have been mindful of it in the build-up, perhaps in the hope that Karim Benzema would have a night like Anelka.

The Real Madrid striker has already prompted Blanc to adapt his philosophy. On August 26, he said: “A player cannot hope to play for France if they don’t play regularly for their club.” The coach of Les Bleus reiterated his stance after Benzema twice opened the scoring in 2-0 victories over Bosnia and then Luxembourg in September and October. “He must play at Real. I have told Karim that he must be on top to impose himself. He must put all his cards to one side to seize his chance. There will be one.”

And yet though increasingly decisive from the Madrid bench, Benzema is still not a starter, and Blanc has had to soften his position. “Find me another international centre-forward who plays at a big club and scores goals,” he challenged reporters on Tuesday. “Benzema is our best centre-forward. I can talk to him about how he can become better, but I can’t intervene in his career choices.”   

Such a situation is not uncommon in French football history. “I was faced with the same question with Eric Cantona when he didn’t play at Marseille and I made him play for France,” Michel Platini explained. “But I thought he was the best. So if Blanc thinks that Benzema is the best then he should make him play.”

On last night’s showing, one would find it hard to argue with that assessment. Benzema may have tried Blanc’s patience last month, turning up late for training camp, which subsequently resulted in a fine and a punishment that consisted of singing a song in front of his teammates, but the 23-year-old underlined his natural ability at Wembley.

Benzema lasted just 67 minutes, but his interplay fizzed amid the kinetic energy of France’s other attacking players, whose movement and one-touch football was indicative of their greater technical quality than England’s players.

Vitally for a striker, he took his chance when it arrived and once again opened the scoring for France. Benzema’s pinpoint finish in the 16th minute belied no sign of rustiness. All things considered, he looked well-oiled – like the team as a whole.

High 10: Scorers Benzema and Valbuena

Wearing Adidas for the last time before a kit deal with Nike comes into effect, ending a much-storied relationship that stretches back to 1972, France shed their skin. For a time it looked as though the abiding image of Les Bleus this year would be drab football and Raymond Domenech stood on a hill in Knysna like a sad puppet, reading out a statement written by his players who were striking in protest at the treatment of Nicolas Anelka.

Instead, it ended on a high note. France are playing with a joie de vivre again. Samir Nasri hinted as much about the new mood in the camp on Saturday when he told L’Équipe: “There is a real team spirit and a lot more contact with the staff. Jean-Louis Gasset, the assistant coach, talks a lot. He jokes. It’s good.

"All the coaches know their job. It simply wasn’t like that before. Today, even when we play PlayStation, the coach comes to see us play to take the mickey out of us. He watches our matches and says: ‘If only you could do that on the pitch...’.”

To Blanc, building a new spirit within the group was his No.1 priority, and it appears to be developing well – although it remains to be seen what effect the reintegration of the strike’s ringleaders has on the squad (as alluded to by Bixente Lizarazu when Eric Abidal was called up) and, lest we forget, the recent dispute over bonuses.

As for the team’s style of play, last night saw the return of the one-two and was of course the first time Yoann Gourcuff and Samir Nasri have started together. It wasn’t quite the carré magique of Platini and Alain Giresse, but did at least show that Blanc wants to play good football like he did at Bordeaux and feels confident enough to dare a little after the racking up a string of wins.

While he has expressed his admiration for Barcelona, the model remains that of Germany. Interviewed in yesterday’s La Gazzetta dello Sport, Blanc said: “In 10 years, they archived the physical play for the fluid kind as seen at the World Cup.”

But it’s still early days. Blanc’s reaction to last night’s 2-1 victory was “above all optimistic, but not euphoric,” and that is the right tone to set. Yet the turnaround is welcome. Le Figaro’s headline summed up the mood on L’Hexagone this morning: “Les Bleus’ annus horribilis ends with the pledge of a happy future.” Indeed it does.