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Lucky to be in South Africa at all, Les Bleus have been in this situation before…

Four years ago, the French football public was wracked with doubts about the national team’s chances of making a big impression at the 2006 World Cup finals. A tricky qualifying campaign battling it out with the Republic of Ireland, the inability of Raymond Domenech to mould an effective unit out of some incredible individual talent and concerns about their most talismanic player, Zinedine Zidane, all contributed to a sense of unease bordering on pessimism as Les Bleus headed for Germany.

As it turned out France went all the way to the Final and were, possibly, just one untimely head-butt away from taking the biggest prize in football. As Domenech again prepares his team to do battle on the world’s biggest stage in 2010, it really is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose [the more things change, the more they stay the same].

France made it to South Africa on the back of an unconvincing qualifying campaign. They struggled in what looked like an easy group and finished second behind Serbia. Drawn against the Republic of Ireland in a two-legged play-off, France won 1-0 in Dublin in the first leg. But the return in Paris will be remembered for all the wrong reasons as they booked their place in South Africa with a 1-1 draw after extra time – thanks to William Gallas’ goal that should not have stood following a blatant handball by Thierry Henry. It was as inglorious a route to the finals as you could imagine and many fans were both thoroughly ashamed to have succeeded in such an unsatisfactory manner and utterly pessimistic about their chances in July.

But a dodgy handball was certainly not the worst of their worries. In late April a scandal broke regarding three internationals alleged to have had sex with an underage prostitute, Zahia Dehar, after meeting in a well-known high-class brothel, Cafe Zaman, on Paris’ Champs-Elysees. Prostitution is legal in France, but those selling sex must be aged 18 or over.

The players involved – Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou – could face up to three years in jail if found guilty. While the French Football Federation reacted with a terse “no comment”, there’s no doubt such an unsavoury episode has done nothing to improve the squad’s chances this summer.

Despite all these unwanted distractions, France still have really gifted players in their ranks; who wouldn’t want the likes of Ribery, Anelka, Gourcuff and Benzema at their disposal? But with Henry struggling all season at Barcelona, the national team don’t have their acknowledged spiritual leader ready to roll.

And it’s been a long time since they really clicked on the pitch. Of course it’s also perfectly possible France will find their sea legs at just the right time and make it all the way to the Final, even with a path that could well be barred by both England and Brazil in the knockout stages. They certainly have enough natural ability to give the world’s best a game on any given day. Once again it’s devilishly difficult to call and it would be a brave man indeed who would bet on how France will perform.

The view from France

“France have got a great team on paper and a wobbly one on grass. Raymond Domenech hasn’t been able either to put together a settled team or get the best out of the guys who’ve been selected so far. These problems can be ironed out during the squad’s tournament
preparations, of course – but you wouldn’t bet on it. It’s hard to see us getting past the quarter-finals.”
Francois Verdenet, France Football

“The French team is capable of being either fantastic or awful. We could easily go out in the group stage, but we could make it to the Final as well. It all depends on the desire of the group put together by a coach who really divides opinion here. There are issues regarding injury (particularly Ribery and Gallas) and a lack of game time (Henry, Benzema, Vieira) as well as whether the older and younger players can really come together – all of which doesn’t look easy.”
Patrick Boudreault, chief football writer for daily newspaper La Depeche

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