Group A: France

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Winners in 1998, finalists in 2006 - but as Jean-Claude Malet explains, the French aren't fancied by many this time...

It’s hard to remember a time when fans, pundits and former players were so down on the national team.

A mediocre qualifying campaign which saw Les Bleus having to rely on that handball by Thierry Henry to get past the luckless Irish in the play-offs, coming off the back of a desperately poor showing at Euro 2008, has most French pundits rating the team’s chances of bringing the Jules Rimet trophy back to its spiritual home at somewhere between slim and none.

Disenchantment with the class of 2010 erupted at the March friendly against Spain, at the same Stade de France where 12 years earlier Zinedine Zidane inspired the greatest night in the national team’s history. As France got the runaround from Xavi & Co, the Paris crowd were merciless in their booing - not only of coach Raymond Domenech, the habitual butt of public dissatisfaction, but of a team who seemed to lack any coherence.

Not even Franck Ribery, the man closest to assuming Zidane-style levels of popularity in the current side, was spared the abuse.

The last eight of the Champions League featured more players from France than from any other nation, but there is a total failure to translate that individual quality into a coherent framework.

Jogging the memory: the current crop run from the past

“This team can’t play together,” argues Emmanuel Petit, just one of the veterans of France 98 whose criticisms of the current set-up have rankled with some of their modern-day successors. “When you see the individuals with their clubs, there is a world of difference with what they achieve in the French shirt.”

He’s got a point. The only position not currently under scrutiny is goalkeeper, thanks to the excellence of the now undisputed No.1 Hugo Lloris.

In attack, Henry looks a fading force, his wide-left place under threat from Ribery’s insistence that that is his best position - not that the Bayern Munich man has been on top of his game of late, what with certain events off the field proving a distraction.

Meanwhile, Karim Benzema has faced such a struggle to justify his reputation since moving to Madrid that Domenech has preferred to hand Djibril Cisse an international recall after two years.

The defence is also unconvincing. Philippe Mexes, the man once supposed to be the next Laurent Blanc, has been unable to get a game and missed the cut. No one in the current side carries the authority of Blanc or Didier Deschamps, men capable of willing the team to get over the line.

In one respect – the creation of an ‘us against the world’ mentality within the camp – Domenech appears to have been successful. There are parallels here with ’98, when few rated Aime Jacquet’s chances of lifting the prize beforehand. But set that against the poverty of recent displays, and the prospects of a repeat performance 12 years on seem at best debatable.

"Please be good, Franck." "What do you mean?"

Given France’s aforementioned representation in the latter stages of the Champions League, surely there have to be 23 players good enough to do a job at the World Cup finals? On paper at least, the team look as good as just about anyone.

In Hugo Lloris, they have perhaps the outstanding young goalkeeper in world football, and if Yoann Gourcuff starts to play for France like he does for Bordeaux, comparisons with Zidane won’t seem so far-fetched. Meanwhile, for one reason and another Ribery hasn't played too much football this season, and might well arrive in South Africa in good nick.

The current team simply does not add up to the sum of its parts. There is a complete lack of confidence, and the better players are either past their best or have spent too long on the treatment table. And with nobody replacing the fading Henry as a key influence, who will get the goals?

Henry is not a natural captain, and neither of the two Diarras or Toulalan have yet acquired the stature of a Didier Deschamps in the middle. Perhaps most pertinently of all, coach Domenech has yet to reveal an ability to shuffle his pack or deliver the telling substitution or tactical switch to turn a situation around.

The Coach: Raymond Domenech
Domenech, a feisty defender as a player, is quite probably the only Frenchman more unpopular than Nicolas Sarkozy right now. Who can forget his cringe-making proposal of marriage to his girlfriend moments after France’s pathetic elimination at Euro 2008?

More substantially, the charge against him is that, despite the playing riches at his disposal, his team continue to deliver sub-standard performances. Domenech continues to insist everything will be fine once the action starts in South Africa, and let’s not forget that without that infamous Zidane headbutt in the last final, chances are he’d be going into these finals defending the trophy.

Key Man: Franck Ribery
The most popular French footballer since Zidane retired, the little dynamo has had an indifferent season by his standards, and will know that these finals offer him his best chance to make his reputation truly global.

Probable Team (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Sagna, Gallas, Abidal, Evra; Lassana Diarra, Toulalan; Ribery, Gourcuff, Henry; Anelka

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the players
INTERVIEW: Yoann Gourcuff on Zidane, South Africa and Domenech
Q&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation

Uruguay June 11, 7.30pm, Cape Town
Mexico June 17, 7.30pm, Polokwane
South Africa, June 22, 3pm, Manguang/Bloemfontein

Qualified Via play-off after finishing runners-up in UEFA Group 7
Austria (A) 1-3
Serbia (H) 2-1
Romania (A) 2-2
Lithuania (A) 1-0
Lithuania (H) 1-0
Faroe Islands (A) 1-0
Romania (H) 1-1
Serbia (A) 1-1
Faroe Islands (H) 5-0
Austria (H) 3-1
Republic of Ireland (A) 1-0
Republic of Ireland (H) 1-1

World Cup record
1930 1st Round
1934 1st Round
1938 Quarter-Final
1954 1st Round
1958 Semi-Final
1966 1st Round
1978 1st Round
1982 Semi-Final
1986 Semi-Final
1998 Winners
2002 1st Round
2006 Runners up

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