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Jul 3, 2006

Winning over the critics

Written off as no hopers after an uninspiring series of initial displays, France have emerged as serious contenders to lift the World Cup in Berlin next weekend, but just how have Raymond Domenech's men managed to pull themselves back from the brink in this tournament?

So lacking in creativity and attacking bite that they came within a whisker of being eliminated at the group stages, they have been rapidly transformed into a tight-knit unit firing on all cylinders as the much-fancied Spain and Brazil were summarily dispatched in the knock-out rounds.

'We've witnessed two French teams in Germany,' says Loic De La Mornais, a reporter with FR2 TV. 'The one which seemed content with a minimum level of service early on and the one full of self-belief and purpose which put out Spain and Brazil. It's been night and day.

'In many ways, this revival has been built on the players reacting to all the criticism they took from the media at the start of the competition. The players were angry with the attacks aimed at them and rallied together to prove the pundits wrong. Their pride was hurt and they have been out to prove the critics wrong. There has been a kind of siege mentality at work in the French camp and it has brought results.

'Secondly, I think it's been a case of France's big players, Henry, Zidane Vieira, Thuram, Makelele and Barthez, rising to the challenge of big games.

'These are guys who have already won World Cups and European Championships. They know just what it takes to win at the highest level. Brazil's world-class players didn't at all intimidate them. It's also helped that against Spain and Brazil we weren't favourites. The pressure was off, so our players were paradoxically more relaxed than in the first round games.'

Of course, another decisive factor France had going for them in Frankfurt was a certain Zinedine Zidane. The 34-year-old playmaker's ability on the ball even had the Brazilian artists mesmerised at times and there can be little doubt that Les Bleus would not have prevailed without his ability to hold on to the ball under pressure, his vast array of tricks and imaginative distribution.

'Great players never die,' gushes Zidane's ex-France and Bordeaux team-mate Christophe Dugarry, now working as a TV pundit.

'This was one of Zizou's best ever games. He illuminated it with his class from start to finish. The Brazilians aren't used to opponents giving them a lesson in ball control and virtuosity. It was Zizou at his very best and I was absolutely delighted for him.

'I'd say that the fact that Zidane is going to retire at the end of this tournament is having a galvanizing effect on the entire team. Everyone wants him to keep going as long as possible. Everyone wants him to go out on a high.

'Funnily enough I was always confident that France would beat Brazil, as the Brazilians hadn't particularly impressed on getting to the last-eight.

'Adriano, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were not in great form and up to this point Brazil had only met unambitious teams who had shown them too much respect. With all the experienced players in the French ranks, that wasn't going to be the case in this game. In the second-half particularly, France took the game to Brazil, made life difficult for them.

It will be tight but I can only see one winner - Zidane and the boys.
Christoph Dugarry

'Portugal and France are closely matched. It will be tight but I can only see one winner - Zidane and the boys.'

Up until now, France have only conceded two goals in the whole World Cup and former Blues libero, Laurent Blanc, a man who many see as an eventual national team coach, sees this defensive stability as a major part of France's success.

'Collectively and individually the back-four looks really strong at the moment,' states Blanc. 'In the centre, Gallas and Thuram have turned out to be an outstanding central partnership as they are quick to snuff out danger, while also being strong in the air and in the tackle. At right-back Willy Sagnol hasn't put a foot wrong,

'Eric Abidal on the other flank has been very solid and Barthez is still a great keeper. What's more Pat Vieira and Claude Makelele have done a magnificent job shielding the defence.

'The only criticism I would make is that early in these finals we weren't playing the ball out of defence quickly enough. That's been rectified. To win a World Cup you have to have a solid base. We have that right now.'

You may suspect those journalists who have waged a long-running battle with France coach Domenech may now be helping themselves to copious helpings of humble pie, yet a couple of impressive wins have not been enough to transform a relationship between a coach and the media who have long campaigned against his methods.

While it's been smiles all round in the French camp since they came alive in the knock-out stages, the journalists pounding the Gallic beat have been slow to join this wave of euphoria and their depressing existence in Germany has not helped their mood.

Ensconced in the Schlosshotel Munchausen, a 16th century castle some forty miles south of Hannover, the French squad and management have been at pains to keep the press pack at arms length and at times have been downright hostile.

Players have literally had to be dragged to briefings kicking and screaming and self-appointed team shop steward, Willy Sagnol, advised ex-Blues captain Marcel Desailly to 'shut it' after the latter was mildly critical of the performance in the goalless draw with Switzerland.

As for Domenech, he has been doing the best impression of a grumpy old man at this World Cup and he confirmed as much when answering a perfectly reasonable question from an unsuspecting Asian journalist at a press briefing prior to the group game against the South Korean side.

When probed for his thoughts on Dick Advocaat's men, Domenech's response was cutting and to the point. 'You have a national coach, don't you,' he barked. 'Then ask him what South Korea are like as a team.'

There is no doubt as to the star turn of the French press conferences. Able to converse in his native tongue as well as English and Italian, Thierry Henry's little chats have provided insight and no little fun.

If only those around him had a similarly sunny approach to life.


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