Next best things – France

After their embarrassing exit in the group stages in 2002, France atoned for their errors by reaching the final. Neil McCarthy gauges the reaction across the channel

There’s a hard lesson to learn from the performances in the 1998 and 2006 World Cups: the less the French public think of their team, the better they do. Victory in one World Cup then reaching another final is a record that surely any country outside Brazil would be jealous of. But as 2002 proved, it only happens to France if the supporters really believe it won’t.

It’s particularly hard on the managers. Aimé Jacquet and Raymond Domenech were really hated before and even during the respective tournaments. Although Jacquet is now much loved and widely appreciated for his part in the 1998 success, only time will tell how Domenech will fare. A common element between 1998 and 2006 is that the public started to warm to the team as the tournament progressed. It was true of Jacquet, too, but not at all of Domenech.

After France’s draw with South Korea, a fan posted an eBay offer that summed up feelings: “For sale French Team + free gift: Domenech.” The starting price, the customary one euro. “Following failure at the World Cup, the French community is selling a very used French team. Mainly unexploitable, there are some spare parts that may bring profit in a future sale (Abidal, Gallas, Makelele) or useful for exchange for more combative players capable of getting through to the second round in 2010.” It finished off with: “Free gift! Raymond Domenech included with this lot and we’ll even give you money to take him away (be warned: he will be of no use at all).”

But the major weapon of the French public is not witty critique of the manager or a particular player, it’s the pure indifference that they can muster. And it’s not just the lack of excitement before the tournament and the lack of faith in the national team’s chances, it is also carried over to lack of enthusiasm when things start going well. I hit the town (albeit a very small town) shortly after the Brazil match only to find that everyone had already gone to bed.

But the French slowly came to terms with the possibility that they were wrong about the “old men” in the days after the Brazil match. Once Portugal were beaten, opinion finally snapped to the other extreme: partying in big French towns after the semi-final was so intense that five people were killed and a poll carried out for the TV station TF1 declared that 86 per cent of the country thought France would win the final.

In 1998 Jacquet cited the attacks from the press and the public as one of the reasons for his team’s success. It served to bind the players and keep concentration high – the team hotel was off limits to media. In 2000, attacks on Didier Deschamps by the national sports daily L’Equipe also led to a media ban and victory against Italy in Euro 2000. In 2006 the same thing seems to have happened. Willy Sagnol interviewed a few days before the final offered the information that the group’s war-cry was “We will die together!”

But perhaps the most important factor was simply Zinedine Zidane. Whereas hardly anyone expected the team to win the World Cup and most expected an ignominious first-round exit, no one wished such a fate on this national hero. When Zidane received a yellow card against South Korea, his second so far, so was going to miss the last first-round match, there was a real possibility that he had played his final game. The shock of this was felt nationally but also, obviously, in the dressing room. It has been widely reported that the squad had become factional, but the idea that they needed to win 2-0 against Togo “for Zidane” – it was also his birthday – seems to have galvanised them.

Zidane, back against Spain, showed his appreciation by finally turning on the talent and over the next three matches offered us a final glimpse of what he can do best, before showing his worst side with the attack on Materazzi. It’s still unsure how his team-mates reacted to his red card, but the French public and media forgave him immediately, imagining the worst of provocations from his victim.

The squad, Zidane included, had an official reception with President Chirac on their return. Not something that the more politically outspoken members of the squad may have found especially delightful, but a far cry from the catcalls that had seemed certain such a short time before.

From WSC 234 August 2006. What was happening this month