French renaissance highlighted by Mexes and Rami's defensive 'bromance'
Laurent Blanc wonÃ¢ÂÂt have struggled to find the words to describe what he felt before WednesdayÃ¢ÂÂs friendly between France and Brazil in Paris. This was as classic an example of dÃÂ©jÃÂ -vu if ever there was one.
Thirteen years ago, he had been in the exact same position awaiting the start of the World Cup final on July 8, 1998. And much like last night Blanc was forced to sit on the bench.
Back then he had scandalously been banned from playing the final against Brazil in one of footballÃ¢ÂÂs great injustices. Blanc received the first red card of his career in the previous round for a non-existent coming together with CroatiaÃ¢ÂÂs Slaven BiliÃÂ. It was a travesty.
Ã¢ÂÂI didnÃ¢ÂÂt experience it like any old spectator because I had the chance to follow it from the bench and not in the stands like the rules indicated,Ã¢ÂÂ Blanc told France Football. Ã¢ÂÂFrankly I prepared myself as if I were going to play that final. I remember playing at being a journalist in the Stade de France and trying to get BrazilÃ¢ÂÂs starting line up. I had to occupy myself to pass the time and believe me the time didnÃ¢ÂÂt pass very quickly.Ã¢ÂÂ
Rather than take pity on himself, Blanc reported for training to the surprise of AimÃÂ© Jacquet, sat in the same seat on the team bus and wore his No 5 shirt on the bench even in the knowledge that he hadnÃ¢ÂÂt a chance of playing the final. He understood that the collective came before the individual.
If Blanc hadnÃ¢ÂÂt given it consideration before, he now really thought in earnest about becoming a coach. Ã¢ÂÂYes, I already was one then,Ã¢ÂÂ Blanc said.
Memories of 1998 came flooding back last night. The hope that they would have a restorative effect on les Bleus wasnÃ¢ÂÂt lacking among the supporters. Last summerÃ¢ÂÂs events in South Africa represented a nadir in French football history Ã¢ÂÂ above all, when it came to the theme of national togetherness.
The Black, Blanc and Beur element Ã¢ÂÂ held up as 1998's great social legacy Ã¢ÂÂ had been ripped to shreds in South African squabbles. Ã¢ÂÂWe have seen FranceÃ¢ÂÂs real face,Ã¢ÂÂ Nicolas Anelka claimed: Ã¢ÂÂFranck RibÃÂ©ry hits Yoann Gourcuff. Gourcuff, the good Frenchman, RibÃÂ©ry the Muslim.Ã¢ÂÂ
Even six months on, the after-effects of the strike in Knysna are still being felt. Indeed, Patrice EvraÃ¢ÂÂs international future is the very definition of a political football, with FranceÃ¢ÂÂs Minister of Sport Chantal Jouanno recommending that he never play for the country again after Ã¢ÂÂsullyingÃ¢ÂÂ its name.
Sixty two percent of fans polled by France Football before the announcement of BlancÃ¢ÂÂs latest squad were against EvraÃ¢ÂÂs call-up, even though the Manchester United left-back had completed a five-match ban for the role he played in South Africa. Amidst great speculation, Blanc eventually chose not to include him, insisting that the decision had been taken Ã¢ÂÂpurely for sporting reasons.Ã¢ÂÂ
That matter was laid to rest, at least for now, and the prospect of playing Brazil meant a sunny disposition prevailed at Clairefontaine. Signs that the inheritance of `98 wasnÃ¢ÂÂt lost on the current generation were plentiful. As for the Black, Blanc and Beur component no greater advert for its revival could come than in the bond formed by FranceÃ¢ÂÂs two centre-backs Philippe MexÃÂ¨s and Adil Rami.
Interviewed jointly in LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe on Tuesday, their bonhomie leapt off the page. Ã¢ÂÂWeÃ¢ÂÂre not married,Ã¢ÂÂ MexÃÂ¨s blushed. Rami on the other hand felt absolutely no shame at the bromance. Ã¢ÂÂWe sleep in the same chÃÂ¢teaux, thatÃ¢ÂÂs enoughÃ¢ÂÂ¦Ã¢ÂÂ he joked.
Contrary to the impression given, France were taking the encounter seriously, although loyalties were split within the group. Guillaume Hoarau, the Paris Saint-Germain striker, revealed how he had been wearing a Brazil shirt on the day of the Ã¢ÂÂ98 final Ã¢ÂÂbut quickly took it off when France scored.Ã¢ÂÂ Cultural ties also made it a special game for ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs Florent Malouda. Ã¢ÂÂI am Brazilian,Ã¢ÂÂ he told Le Parisien.
Ã¢ÂÂMy wife is from Brazil, my children are half-BrazilianÃ¢ÂÂ¦ When I was little, I dreamed of playing in Brazil for a Brazilian club. Having grown up in Guyana, France was far away and I thought I had more chance of success over there.Ã¢ÂÂ
Speaking of success, FranceÃ¢ÂÂs record against Brazil is remarkable. Les Bleus havenÃ¢ÂÂt lost to the Samba kings since August 26, 1992, when RaÃÂ, the cityÃ¢ÂÂs future darling inspired a 2-0 victory at the Parc des Princes. Blanc still erred on the side of caution, however, and paid customary respect to his opponent.
Ã¢ÂÂEach decade an extraordinary generation comes out of Brazil. ItÃ¢ÂÂs for this reason that there are five stars on their shirtÃ¢ÂÂ¦ Brazil are in reconstruction because they have young players, but they are practically the best in their positions. In the team that will start thereÃ¢ÂÂll be one from Inter, one from Barcelona, another from MilanÃ¢ÂÂ¦.Ã¢ÂÂ
But thatÃ¢ÂÂs not to say of course that there wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a palpable air of cautious optimism blowing through the French camp. DecemberÃ¢ÂÂs hugely impressive dismantling of England at Wembley left no illusions as to the potential of this side. It was also FranceÃ¢ÂÂs fourth win on the bounce under Blanc.
The key word here was continuity, though there was a sense that a two-month hiatus and the absences of both Samir Nasri and Mathieu Valbuena might well knock les Bleus off their rhythm.
Ã¢ÂÂWe will stick with the same philosophy,Ã¢ÂÂ Blanc said. Indeed, not much would change aside from the new kit launched by Nike with the slogan: Ã¢ÂÂOur differences unite us.Ã¢ÂÂ
The team-sheet once again made for familiar reading with Hugo Lloris wearing a red mime outfit in goal, the lovers MexÃÂ¨s and Rami in defence, Alou Diarra named as captain for a fourth time, and Karim Benzema brooding menacingly up front.
A second chance was afforded to richly talented Roma playmaker JÃÂ©rÃÂ©my Menez on the right-hand side of FranceÃ¢ÂÂs 4-2-3-1 formation. His nerves had got the better of him in the 1-0 defeat to Belarus last September and he had lost his place in the squad. The 23-year-old wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt let Blanc down this time.
Before the match Zinedine Zidane had offered FranceÃ¢ÂÂs players some advice. After all, he had masterminded defeats of Brazil in 1998 and 2006. Ã¢ÂÂEach time I talk about Brazil, I have a good memory,Ã¢ÂÂ Zidane told LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe.
Ã¢ÂÂThe fact that I have also been on holiday there has an impact on my relationship with the country. I was always afraid. I asked myself how they would welcome me. And whatÃ¢ÂÂs funny is that they welcomed a Brazilian footballer. French, but BrazilianÃ¢ÂÂ¦ They didnÃ¢ÂÂt have any resentment.Ã¢ÂÂ
The secret to beating Brazil, according to Zizou, is that they donÃ¢ÂÂt like to be provoked. Ã¢ÂÂYou have to rattle them,Ã¢ÂÂ he said.
Uncharacteristically for a team without Felipe Melo, it was Brazil who did most of the needling. The pitch was in a sorry state after the Six Nations match between France and Scotland four days earlier and initially didnÃ¢ÂÂt appear to lend itself particularly well to slick passing.
Mano Menezes side had much of the early possession and managed to eek out chances for Milan duo Alexandre Pato and Robinho. But the SeleÃÂ§ÃÂ£o looked cluttered and ungainly. France, meanwhile, seemed to carry the greater threat.
HernanesÃ¢ÂÂs sending off in the 40th minute for a Ã¢ÂÂDe JongÃ¢ÂÂ style challenge on Benzema swung the game greatly in FranceÃ¢ÂÂs favour and to their credit they took advantage.
The breakthrough came shortly after the interval when Menez turned two Brazilians inside out down the right flank and then played a perfect ball across the box. Benzema lay in wait to score his third goal in a row for France.
The 23-year-old had been a little wasteful, notably in the first half when he didnÃ¢ÂÂt supply the finish Yoann GourcuffÃ¢ÂÂs wonderful reverse pass thoroughly deserved. But once again Benzema showed the swagger that was a hallmark of his play two and a half seasons ago when he struck 27 times for Lyon. He looked dangerous with each touch of the ball.
It was yet another return to form under Blanc, not just for his No 1 striker, but also for MexÃÂ¨s, the man of the match, and for the team as a whole. Ã¢ÂÂI liked what I sawÃ¢ÂÂ¦ There were many positives this evening,Ã¢ÂÂ Blanc said.
FranceÃ¢ÂÂs prestigious 1-0 victory extends their winning streak to five games, a feat les Bleus havenÃ¢ÂÂt achieved since 2007. And though thousands of fans didnÃ¢ÂÂt line the Champs-ElysÃÂ©es to savour this triumph over Brazil as they famously did in 1998, there is a definite sense, as evoked in LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipeÃ¢ÂÂs headline this morning, that things are getting Ã¢ÂÂbetter and better."