11 June ~ In 1998, excitement at hosting the finals cut through the pessimism about France’s chances. In 2002, the French were broadly confident that their side would retain the trophy (they went out in the first round without scoring a goal). Four years ago, while there was some enthusiasm for a team containing Thierry Henry in his prime, few fans expected Les Bleus to progress beyond the quarter-finals.
The theme of opinion on the eve of France’s last three World Cup adventures has been that that whatever supporters or the media said was likely to happen has eventually proved hopelessly wrong. When expectations are at their lowest, Les Bleus have succeeded. When confidence tilts towards arrogance, a humiliating fall has been just around the corner.
Which is why impending predictions of disaster as France prepare to face Uruguay in Cape Town tonight ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Sure, it could all go wrong – and some of coach Raymond Domenech’s recent decisions almost suggest he’d like it to – but their campaign will be one of the most interesting to watch because there could be so many changes to the team as they progress through the group stages.
“Zero points!” screamed twice-weekly magazine France Football’s editorial this week. It was a reference to France’s humiliating 1-0 defeat to China on Reunion island last Friday. The magazine's editor, Denis Chaumier, described the performance as “a monumental cock-up that has plunged French football into a complete state of anxiety just days from the start of the World Cup”, while Canal Plus summariser Pierre Menes wrote on his daily blog: “Shameful – yes, shameful – is the first word that comes to mind after this display.”
Domenech, as ever, is in the firing line, this time for belatedly introducing 4-3-3 tactics that he had previously shown no interest in and have failed to work. Rumours that the squad is divided refuse to go away, despite the coach's attempts to resolve some of the splits that undermined the team's Euro 2008 campaign by leaving out supposedly disruptive pair Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema.
A further problem emerged this week when the papers claimed that volatile centre-half William Gallas was reportedly unhappy that Patrice Evra would be likely to captain the side if, as expected, Henry starts on the bench. If rumours that some senior players want Bordeaux playmaker Yoann Gourcuff left out of the team are true, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the attention the pin-up boy receives must be the reason, since Gourcuff's set-piece deliveries constitute France's primary source of chances.
Domenech has given barely a word of explanation about why he left out Benzema and Nasri, why he’s opted for 4-3-3 and what he expects from his team tonight. Which means that, as usual, the theme for Les Bleus is to expect the unexpected. James Eastham
Read the WSC World Cup preview for France