Friday, June 25, 2010

Blanc can fix broken France

The consensus is that Laurent Blanc, who takes over as France coach after the World Cup, would find it more rewarding to smash himself in the side of the head with a glass ornament for the next four years.

The doom-mongers say he is taking on an impossible job, and committing career suicide to boot.

In fact, the precise opposite is true.

To be sure, he takes over a France team in total disarray. A shameful World Cup ended with a 2-1 defeat to South Africa, with one player sent home and the players who led a revolt against his expulsion consigned to the bench. The aftermath of the game was predictably messy too, as players queued up to apologise to the fans while simultaneously throwing Raymond Domenech under a bus.

Captain Patrice Evra, dropped for the South Africa debacle, said: "It's time to say sorry. I apologise to the fans. My coach stopped me saying sorry yesterday." He added ominously: "I'll explain things in the week."

Domenech decided to take the low road right from the final whistle, refusing to shake hands with his opposite number Carlos Alberto Parreira, apparently because of a comment about France not deserving to qualify. On the strength of their showing here, Parreira was dead right.

Yes, there will be recriminations, accusations and yet more public squabbling. But after that, Blanc has a unique opportunity. The French football establishment is deeply conservative and deeply political, yet the current mess gives Blanc at least a fighting chance of getting his way.  That Domenech lasted so long owed much to the fact he was one of the federation backroom boys. He was also cheap - one of the lowest-paid coaches at the World Cup.

Blanc is different. He is a highly-rated coach who has been linked with Manchester United and Inter Milan. He doesn't have to be there. He can walk away into a much more lucrative club job. The federation have already shelled out €1.5m compensation to Bordeaux for his services, plus a much heftier salary than Domenech was on.

He can and will demand change. He is a standard-bearer for the class of '98 - players like Didier Deschamps and Bixente Lizarazu who have been fiercely critical of the powers-that-be. And it's not like the Federation bigwigs are in much of a position to resist change. That the present situation was allowed to develop owes much to them.

While French Federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes casually said resignation was "not in my nature", he may not have much choice. Since his election, he has presided over the decline of a nation that 10 years ago were world and European champions, the envy of global football. Now they are a punchline. France are at ground zero, and Blanc can draw a line under the past. The feuds, the cliques and the conflict must be forgotten if France are to move forwards.

There is more good news for Blanc in that France have a very good crop of players. Of the current squad, key men Franck Ribery, Hugo Lloris and Yoann Gourcuff will all still be around in four years, while the under-21 side contains outstanding prospects such as Moussa Sissoko and Mamadou Sakho. Expectations are rock bottom. A team that regularly competed to major silverware now cannot get through training without a senior player shoving a plastic cone down the throat of the fitness coach.

If Blanc can actually win a football match or two, his status as a national hero seems assured.

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