French Evolution

Unbeaten in their last 19 games,Les Bleus seem to have put behind WC disaster,racial discrimination allegations

Written by New York Times | London | Published: June 2, 2012 4:01 am

ROB HUGHES

What to make of the enigmatic French? At the turn of the millennium,Les Bleus ruled the world with a marvelous multiracial mix of what was termed Black,Blanc,Beur. But in more recent tournaments,including the World Cup two years ago,France were a divided,disputatious squad — almost a rabble — and usually the first team flying home in disarray.

Yet today,though not the calibre of the 1998 World Cup winners or the 2000 Euro champions,France have put together 19 games without defeat. Those games include a 2-1 victory this year over Germany — a team favored to win the European tournament that begins in Poland next week and ends in Ukraine on July 1.

Can France,the good and harmonious France,be a real contender for this title? Laurent Blanc was a key defender,known as “The President” on the 1998 team. Now he is the coach,charged with piecing together the remnants of a French squad that mutinied against his predecessor,Raymond Domenech,at the 2010 World Cup.

Blanc wrestles with the political interference that came from former President Nicolas Sarkozy down. Last year,Blanc barely survived the repercussions of being implicated in a clandestine discussion between coaches to limit the number of black players coming through the French system. Incredible to think that a man who stood four-square with Lilian Thuram and Marcel Desailly in defense,and in the same lineup as Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane,should even be discussing a quota of anything to do with ethnicity in France.

The odds on Blanc’s continuing to blend and harmonise the national squad seemed bleak. But his coaching record suggested he was still the best man for the job,and,in terms of results,that bears out. “Top-level sport,” Blanc said this week,“is always about the winning habit.”

He had said previously that the 2-1 victory over Germany in February was a turning point. “Everybody was a bit scared before that game,” Blanc said. “And everyone was pleasantly surprised. Victory in Bremen showed we could raise our level. But it was one game — whether we can do it throughout a competition is another question.”

It is a question that needs to be addressed from the first French encounter,against England on June 11.

The French team have a few gifted players. One of them is Karim Benzema,the striker that Domenech chose not to take to South Africa. In fairness,it is a different Benzema today. Tipped from boyhood to become the new Zidane,Benzema struggled in his first season at Real Madrid after moving there from Lyon.

He looked overweight and overwrought. He had the personal support of Zidane,who advised the Real Madrid president to buy him,but Benzema appeared to flounder in the shadows of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín. But,demonstrating that less really is sometimes more in a sportsman,Benzema shed seven kilograms,or 15 pounds,and proved to José Mourinho,his club coach,that he was a better player for it.

Benzema scored 32 goals for Real in the past season,sharing a record-busting attack with Ronaldo and Higuaín. And Blanc shares the faith in him as leader of the rebuilt French team,even though the Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud is staking a claim to be a starter.

The choice is one that Blanc is working on. The coach usually sets up the team with one prominent striker,supported from midfield and the flanks by Franck Ribéry,Samir Nasri and Mathieu Valbuena. However,Blanc says that he sees no reason why Benzema and Giroud should not play together — if he selects them on a given day.

The attacking options,which also include a revitalized Hatem Ben Arfa,suggest that France has more variety than,say,England.

In defence,Blanc’s own forte as a player,things look less secure. One full-back,Éric Abidal,is out,probably forever,after a recent liver transplant. Another,Bacary Sagna,has a broken leg. Defensive midfielder Abou Diaby has spent more of the past year in the treatment room than on the field.

The goalkeeper,and captain,Hugo Lloris,needs to instill order and confidence in a changing blue line in front of him — a back four likely to feature Lille’s Mathieu Debuchy,Philippe Mexès and Adil Rami in central defense,and Manchester United’s Patrice Evra at left back.

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