The French national coach is under renewed pressure after defeat to a Messi-inspired Argentina in Marseille.
By Howard Johnson in Paris
France’s 2-0 home defeat in Wednesday’s friendly against Argentina was a fair result. The South American team showed all the qualities you’d expect of an outfit that has aspirations of winning the World Cup in South Africa 18 months from now.
France, for their part, showed some neat touches and the odd moment of invention, but the result was never really in doubt after Gutierrez opened the scoring for the visitors with a smart snap shot just before half time.
The fallout from the game for the French, however, will once again centre on national coach Raymond Domenech, his aptitude for the job and his often rancorous relationship with the nation’s football supporters.
Domenech has plenty of critics in the stands, and after Lionel Messi’s brilliant solo strike for Argentina’s second goal at Marseille’s Velodrome Stadium the crowd quickly let their distaste for the French coach be known.
“Domenech out” resounded around the ground and in what was a surreal moment, home supporters greeted every Argentinian touch with an “ole” while roundly booing any French player who got hold of the ball.
There’s more to this than simple anti-Domenech feeling, though. French nationals of Arab descent taking against the national team is a problem that has become a political issue here. Some ministers have even tried to suggest it should become law that players must sing the national anthem before a match to bolster national unity.
But the situation is even is more complicated than that. Lyon striker Karim Benzema, a player with an Arab background, was furiously booed when he took the field to replace the ineffectual Nicolas Anelka against Argentina. This had nothing to do with race and everything to do with the Olympique Marseille supporters in the stadium hating anyone who plays for a rival.
Argentina coach Diego Maradona didn’t have any such problems and was greeted as warmly as he is anywhere in the world. He did say he was sorry to hear Domenech getting such rough treatment given that he is “a great coach”.
But even the greatest coaches would have their work cut out trying to put a stop to Lionel Messi and his tricks. The Barcelona man put in a virtuoso performance against France – sports daily L’Equipe referred to him as “the soloist in the orchestra” – and proved once more that he’s currently the undisputed best player in the world.
Maradona was much more successful in nullifying the threat of France’s best player Franck Ribery, who got very little change out of an Argentina defence that was motivated, organised and aggressive in its desire to deny the Bayern Munich man even an inch of space.
The South Americans’ evident hunger for victory added some much-appreciated spice to this friendly, when similar games often have a tendency to descend into exhibition stuff with the two sides showing each other too much respect. William Gallas and Gabriel Heinze had a bit of an ongoing ding-dong throughout the match, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a match that both sides really wanted to win.
Can France put together a side that can compete with the world’s best in South Africa? Yes, they can. Even in defeat the likes of Bacary Sagna, Jeremy Toulalan and Lassana Diarra showed that Domenech’s side have the basis of a strong defensive unit. Both William Gallas and Philippe Mexes need to be more consistent in their central defensive partnership, but both have shown they have quality.
With Ribery prompting effectively and Anelka at the top of his game this is a side with much going for it. But as Bacary Sagna said, “Whether we play at the Stade de France or in Marseille it doesn’t feel like we’re the home side. The public don’t realise just how important they are.” Negativity up in the stands will only hinder the national team’s progress.