Les Bleus coach is clinging on in the face of huge opposition

By Howard Johnson in Paris
Everybody hates Raymond. Or so it would appear yet again after the national team’s insipid performances to date in the quest for automatic World Cup qualification. Everybody, that is, except for French federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes, who is seemingly the only person in the country who still has confidence in national team coach Raymond Domenech.

Despite the fact that on paper Les Bleus have one of the strongest squads in world football, the country’s qualifying campaign has been a continuing saga of dodgy selections, uninspiring performances, thinly disguised discontent in the ranks and endless underachievement. Under such circumstances the team’s latest result, a 1-1 draw in Serbia in front of a hostile Belgrade crowd, could quite reasonably be seen as something of a triumph for Domenech. After all, Serbia is one of the most difficult places to visit and France pulled themselves up by their bootstraps after going a goal down to a penalty in an incident that saw keeper Hugo Lloris red carded as early as the ninth minute.

Given France’s inability to inspire their public, many believed that defeat in Belgrade was absolutely inevitable. But a Thierry Henry strike in the 33rd minute gave the 10-man team parity in the match and they went on to tough it out for a well-deserved draw that leaves them unlikely to qualify as outright group winners, but with every chance of making it through to the playoff stages as one of eight best runners-up in the nine European qualifying groups.

But regardless of whether France finally make it South Africa, there will still be huge doubts cast over coach Domenech’s ability to motivate a group of undoubtedly talented individuals into a cohesive unit. With players such as Ribéry, Anelka, Gourcuff, Evra and Benzema at his disposal you’d think Domenech would have been able to collect qualifying points without even thinking about it. But with France languishing on 15 points after eight games it looks most likely that the team will be forced to book their seats on the plane to South Africa the hard way. Given the talent in the ranks this is a pretty poor show.

Bordeaux President Jean-Louis Triaud ratcheted up the pressure on Domenech – inadvertently or otherwise – when he spoke on French radio the day before the Serbia game. Triaud said that he wouldn‘t have anything against the idea of his coach, the highly rated Laurent Blanc – looking after the national team for “an interim period” while still performing his duties at Bordeaux. It was a statement that didn’t best please the former French international, who said, “Leave Domenech in peace for a bit and don’t bring me into all this.” It’s unlikely, though, that anyone in France actually has the intention of getting off the current coach’s back anytime soon.

It’s still not impossible for France to qualify directly for South Africa as outright winners of Group 7, but it would take a minor miracle for that to happen. First of all Domenech’s side would need to win their two remaining qualifying games, against the Faroe Islands on October 10 and then against Austria four days later. This is eminently do-able and would give France a final total of 21 points. But Serbia are already on 19 points and their remaining two games are at home to Romania and away to Lithuania, two countries the Serbs have already beaten in the group. You’d have to be a real optimist to believe that France will avoid the playoffs, then, though at least Austria’s draw against Romania means ‘Les Bleus’ need only a win against the Faroes to guarantee a play-off place and a two-legged “winner takes all” scenario in November.

But regardless of all this, France’s qualifying campaign has been highly unconvincing by anybody’s standards. And Domenech’s complete refusal to acknowledge his side’s failings or the generally moribund nature of France’s performances in front of the French public has only exacerbated the feelings of frustration amongst supporters.

Domenech may, of course, end up having the last laugh. It wouldn’t be the first time that a team supposedly in crisis made a decent fist of a finals tournament. Remember 1998? But it certainly feels like a creditable showing in South Africa is an absolute must if the coach is to remain at the head of the French team. Time, as always, will tell.