The World Cup may be in their own country, but Neil McCarthy explains why the French aren't as confident as you might think
There are two main advantages in being the World Cup’s host nation: automatic qualification and playing at home. France, however, appear to be turning them both into disadvantages. After 18 months of lacklustre friendly matches, the French players are finding it increasingly difficult to perform to a background of boos and whistling from their own supporters.
In the last international friendly, France were jeered off the pitch after beating Scotland 2-1 at Saint-Etienne. In previous matches too the team or individual players have been abused by the home support at grounds around France. This behaviour is not set against a background of embarrassing defeats. France only lost one match in 1997, against England in the summer Tournoi de France. They have beaten Holland, Sweden, South Africa and Scotland at home, they beat Portugal in Portugal and drew with both Italy and Brazil in the other two Tournoi matches.
It’s not the results but the performances that have been criticised by the fans. The home victories have all been by one goal margins, the tactics defensive and the attack force unconvincing. The biggest issue is that coach Aimé Jacquet still hasn’t provided his solution to two questions that have been crying out for answers since the European Championships: how to play Zidane and Djorkaeff together and who will spearhead the French attack. Jacquet has certainly been testing the possibilities, putting either Zidane or Djorkaeff on the bench (either of which will be unforgivable in the fans’ eyes next Summer) and trying no less than nine different forwards. Some say that Jacquet has it all worked out in his head and is simply playing his cards close to his chest, but there are signs to the contrary. At the Christmas get-together for the French squad, twenty nine players were invited to a Swiss ski resort. The group included seven centre-forwards.
You have to feel some sympathy for Jacquet. There are some problems that are completely out of his control. The transfer market is one: three of his previous regulars, Lama, Karambeu and Lizarazu, have not been able to play this season, basically because they cocked up career moves. Another problem hinted at in the press is that the players based at big overseas clubs do not give their all for their national team simply because their employers have told them not to tire themselves in unimportant friendlies.
So the frustration mounts and the French fans become increasingly hostile to the French team. Interviewed in the press, defender Lilian Thuram says that “Whereas before we were booed for playing badly, now we’re just booed for playing. It’s become a habit”. Everyone that I’ve talked to (brother-in-laws, taxi-drivers, friends, people in bars, policemen) are all firm in their conviction that France won’t win the World Cup.That’s a fairly hefty blow to the home advantage theory. Even Aimé Jacquet is getting in on the act: asked to name his favourites for the World Cup by Planète Foot magazine he said “Brazil, Italy, Germany and of course you’ve got to watch out for teams like Holland, Spain, England. France is not one of the favourites.”
Of course it could be that I’m talking to the wrong people. An official World Cup opinion poll published in France Football last year indicated that 42% of French football supporters believed that France were favourites to win the World Cup. Although 40% thought the team lacked solidarity, 37% thought they should play more attacking football and 15% thought they should sack Aimé Jacquet straight away. Mind you, to give an indication of how seriously you should take these findings, the question “In which country will the 1998 World Cup take place?” was answered correctly by only 87% of those claiming to be football fans.
The next big test will be at the official opening of the new Stade de France at Saint Denis. This is organised for January 27th and will include a match against Spain. Although it is once again a friendly match, it is hoped that the impending final squad announcements and the overall event will bring out the best in both sets of players. It seems a strange thing to say with six months still to go before the World Cup kicks off, but the match against Spain may well be the last chance that the French team have to win their supporters back.
From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month