France class of 1998 seize power

PARIS - They are known as the class of 1998, have achieved a lasting mark by handing France their only World Cup triumph and will soon seize power with Laurent Blanc becoming the national team coach.

Blanc, a prominent member of that fabulous 1998 side, although he missed the final through suspension, will replace Raymond Domenech in the top job after the World Cup finals in South Africa, the French Football Federation (FFF) confirmed on Thursday.

Only 44 but already a Ligue 1-winning coach with Girondins Bordeaux last year, Blanc was regarded as the favourite to become France coach in 2004 but the FFF ruled he was not experienced enough and picked Domenech instead.

NEWS: Blanc to take over France

Domenech was never popular with the fans, although he guided France all the way to the final of the 2006 World Cup, and has been booed at every match ever since the former world and European champions' shock early exit from Euro 2008.

His taste for cautious tactics did not go down well with the supporters, but their main problem was that the man in charge of the team that once made France proud had never won anything as a coach.

Stubborn, never apologetic about anything and revelling in controversy, Domenech soon became the man everybody loves to hate.

Blanc is different, if only because he has put his hands on plenty of silverware as a player, with France but also at club level notably with Inter Milan or Manchester United, and has already won a title as coach despite limited experience.

As a player, Domenech was a rough, workaholic defender who modestly won eight caps while Blanc was an elegant sweeper who graced his country 97 times.


Blanc's main advantage, however, was that he was there in 1998, alongside Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps and Bixente Lizarazu.

Many members of that awe-inspiring side have stayed active, some in coaching like Deschamps, who has just guided Olympique Marseille to the Ligue 1 title, others as television pundits like Zidane and Lizarazu.

Most have become harsh Domenech critics, to the extent that FFF president Jean-Pierre Escalettes once called them a "lobbying group", and they did not understand the ruling body's decision to leave Domenech in place after the Euro 2008 disaster.

Now they will have one of their own in charge.

The reason why the FFF resisted the class of 1998 for so long was partly because they needed to assert their own power, which they did by naming Domenech, formerly the coach of France's Under-21 side.

Blanc is certain to be much more popular than Domenech at first, if only because of his glorious past, and might be dreaming of emulating Franz Beckenbauer and Mario Zagallo, the only men to have lifted the World Cup as player and coach.

That does not mean he will not face problems.


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

More competent than his critics credit, Domenech did look hard for replacements for unique players such as Zidane, Deschamps and Blanc, only to realise they were nowhere to be found.

The outgoing coach also struggled to blend a bunch of gifted but erratic players into a cohesive unit, as defender Patrice Evra admitted this week, saying France had excellent individuals but were not an excellent side.

Blanc will also have to tackle those issues and some say the challenge of taking charge of the national team has come too early in his coaching career.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson certainly thinks so. "I think he is too young to become a national team coach. I think Laurent has a lot of things to do before taking this kind of role," Ferguson said earlier this year.

The tall, bespectacled Blanc now has to prove his worth but has work to do, notably on his public image.

The man who hardly ever loses his cool but keeps nervously chewing his trademark coffee stirrers while standing by the touchline during matches is sometimes perceived as distant and cold, if not arrogant.

Like Domenech, he rarely smiles and can annoy sometimes with very dry remarks.

If France under his guidance recapture the style that once made them the best side in the world, he will be forgiven. Otherwise he might suffer the same fate as Domenech, with jeers ringing out from the Stade de France stands.

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