Defending champion bounces back from World Cup flop to try again
Posted: Wednesday June 9, 2004 9:21PM; Updated: Wednesday June 9, 2004 9:21PM
PARIS (Reuters) -- The World Cup debacle is behind them; France are back and ready to hold on to the European Championship title they won in 2000.
Since losing their world title with their nightmare showing at the 2002 World Cup, France have won 18 of their 22 matches, lost only once, scored 57 goals and conceded only eight.
The European champions showed impressive form by winning all their Euro 2004 qualifiers and will be looking for another perfect run to victory in the finals in Portugal.
The French have quickly consigned those qualifying successes to the history books and are now fine-tuning their build-up in their friendlies before the start of the finals.
They have been drawn in Group B with Croatia, Switzerland and England whom they will meet in their opener on June 12.
"Playing England will be a kind of derby for us because there are so many players in the English premier league," said coach Jacques Santini.
"We are pleased -- and worried -- because it is never easy to start by playing a big team like England," said Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira.
The champions' warm-up series started in November with a convincing 3-0 win over old foes Germany in Gelsenkirchen followed by a well-deserved 2-0 victory over Belgium in February which stretched their winning sequence to 14 straight matches -- a French record.
But their assault on a world-record 15th successive international victory floundered at the end of March when they gave an uninspired performance to draw 0-0 with the Netherlands in Rotterdam.
Santini was unperturbed that the FIFA Centenary match against world champions Brazil at the Stade de France last Thursday also ended in a goalless draw.
"We don't have to be either happy or disappointed. I always said this game was not the one we considered as the most important in our preparation," Santini said.
The French have been beaten only once since Santini took over from Roger Lemerre in July 2002, when they lost 2-0 to the Czech Republic in a friendly at the Stade de France in February 2003.
But France were unbeatable when it really mattered, although Group One was among the weakest of the 10 qualifying groups with Malta and Cyprus not in the top 80 of the FIFA rankings and Israel and Slovenia mid-ranking nations at best.
France duly made the most of it.
After a sluggish start in Cyprus, where they won 2-1, the French thrashed the Cypriots 5-0 in Paris and humiliated Malta 4-0 and 6-0.
They proved solid when it came to sealing their finals place in the small, hostile Central Stadium in Ljubljana, matching the gifted Slovenians with only 10 men and winning 2-0.
On the surface little seems to have changed since the world champions were eliminated in the first round in South Korea, failing to win or even score a goal with Juventus's prolific David Trezeguet and Arsenal's Thierry Henry up front.
They will probably be without the league's top scorer Djibril Cisse, who was given a five-match ban for kicking an opponent during an under-21 game against Portugal.
But Les Bleus can count on other gifted strikers such as Manchester United's Louis Saha, who scored on his international debut against Belgium.
France, however, have regained their confidence and self-esteem this season.
The team against Slovenia was full of familiar names -- nine of the 11 who played were also in the side that lost 2-0 to Denmark in France's last game at the 2002 World Cup.
On the plus side too, the French have learned that they can play -- and win -- without Zinedine Zidane, arguably the most inspirational player in world soccer.
Since Santini became coach, France have played eight of their 22 games without Zidane. They have won seven of them and drawn once, scoring 20 goals and conceding four.
Life without Zidane is now a bearable possibility, which was not the case in the 2002 World Cup when the country was gripped with anxiety after "Zizou" had to pull out of France's first two games against Senegal and Uruguay through injury.
Without Zidane, France also won the Confederations Cup, beating World Cup semi-finalists Turkey in the last four before taming African champions Cameroon in the final.
They booked their Euro 2004 place against Slovenia with eight 1998 world champions in the starting 11.
But they now have battle-hardened reserves who could make a difference in Portugal as the schedule will be tighter than in a World Cup.
Stubborn Santini revives France's 1998 winning spirit
PARIS (Reuters) -- Ever since Aime Jacquet led France to World Cup victory in 1998, French managers have all seemed to come from the same mould and Jacques Santini, a stubborn and aloof character appears at first glance to be no exception.
In terms of media communication -- or lack of it -- the former St Etienne player has perfectly grasped the baton passed from Jacquet to Roger Lemerre, Santini's immediate predecessor.
In getting France to Portugal, the former Olympique Lyon manager also relied on the players who formed the backbone of the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winning campaigns.
Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira, Fabien Barthez, Thierry Henry, Bixente Lizarazu, Lilian Thuram and David Trezeguet are likely to be the key players again next month.
But unlike Lemerre, who built on the 1998 success to lead France to Euro 2000 victory but failed to rejuvenate the squad in 2002, Santini has bedded in fresh talent, including Sochaux midfielder Benoit Pedretti.
At the 2002 World Cup, when France, as defending champions, suffered a humiliating first-round exit, Lemerre was content with doubling up every position.
By contrast, Santini, who had just led Lyon to their first league title when he was appointed in July 2002, put various tactical plans into place and now has more options.
His major achievement was probably to prove that France could live without the mercurial talents of Zidane.
The Real Madrid playmaker's injury in South Korea was seen as one of the reasons for France's failure at the World Cup and Lemerre never seemed to find a suitable replacement.
Since Santini took over, France have played eight of their 22 games without Zidane. They have won seven and drawn one of them, scoring 20 goals and conceding four.
With Pedretti, Arsenal's Robert Pires and Chelsea's Claude Makelele, Santini has benefited from players able to step in.
The result has been impressive. The French won all of their eight Euro qualifiers and the squad's senior players admitted they could feel a positive change.
"Our game of old has returned and there is a feeling we had gradually lost after the 1998 World Cup," said Zidane.
Trezeguet spearheads lethal France attack
PARIS (Reuters) -- David Trezeguet has scored more goals for France than Thierry Henry and arguably plays for a more prestigious club, yet he still lives in the shadow of his French international strike partner.
The Juventus forward, who netted the golden goal against Italy to give France victory in the Euro 2000 final, is France's top marksman with 28 goals from 49 outings.
With the equally-prolific Henry, who has notched up 25 international goals in 57 matches, the partnership is enough to strike fear in any defence. That was emphasised again when they scored all three between them in France's 3-0 win over Germany last November.
Pele, naming his somewhat erratic list of the world's top living players last month, said France's Zinedine Zidane and Trezeguet stood out along with Brazil's Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo.
Despite his fine record, "Trezegol" was a late developer for France, cementing a regular place in the starting line-up only when Jacques Santini took over from Roger Lemerre after the 2002 World Cup failure.
But he has not been slow in making up for lost time.
Together with Henry, a former team mate in their younger days at Monaco, he now has his eye on Michel Platini's all-time record haul of 41 goals for his country and, at just 26, he has time on his side.
Trezeguet, whose father is from Argentina, started his career at Platense in that country before joining Monaco in 1995 and then Juventus, Platini's old Italian club, in 2000.
"Of course it is a dream both for me and Titi (Henry) to try and keep scoring and one day catch Platini. But there's still a long way to go," said the striker, who has won two French titles with Monaco and two Serie A titles with Juve.
Few would bet against Trezeguet achieving the milestone, especially with Henry happy to create plenty of chances for his strike partner.
"I'm not only a scorer, I also try to set up goals for him. I know exactly how he wants them," said Henry after his cross helped Trezegol to score against Israel in France's last Euro qualifier.
Trezeguet has pace, power and athleticism, and if both he and Henry hit top form together in Portugal, their combination could prove devastating to the opposition -- and go a long way in helping France to retain their crown.
Zidane set to grace the big stage, perhaps for last time
PARIS (Reuters) -- France went down on their knees at the 2002 World Cup because Zinedine Zidane injured his thigh a few days before the start of the tournament.
French fans might also kneel, this time as a testimony of admiration, if the balding playmaker leaves his mark on the European Championship as he did in the 1998 World Cup final or the 2002 Champions League final.
With the Euro 2004 finals starting next month, the soft-spoken Zidane will have the opportunity to show once again that he is among the world's greatest ever players.
The brilliant playmaker has extended his contract with Real Madrid until 2007 but he was a little more coy when asked if he would go on with Les Bleus after the competition in Portugal.
Euro 2004 would then be the best chance for him to go for a second Golden Ball and reduce the gap with other football greats such as Michel Platini and Johan Cruyff, three-times winners of the European Footballer of the Year award.
His nonchalant close control, delicate turns, his ability to create space for himself where none existed a second earlier and his unmatched vision of the game soon made him a favourite at Real Madrid when he won the FIFA player of the year award for the third time in 2003.
"He dominates the ball, he is a walking spectacle and he plays as if he had silk gloves on each foot," Real Madrid hero Alfredo Di Stefano has said of him.
"He reminds me a bit of myself, although I was a bit quicker. He makes it worthwhile going to the stadium -- he's one of the best I have ever seen."
That talent enabled Zidane to live a life that most from his humble background in the La Castellane district of Marseille can only dream of.
His family are Algerian immigrants and the area he grew up in is a tough one.
Yet he has crossed boundaries all his life, and remarkably has just been voted top in a poll carried out by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper as the most popular Frenchman of all time.
However, something is still missing. Although he has universal respect both within and without football, he falls short of the utter greatness bestowed upon the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona or Platini.
Still he can live with that for he is arguably among the best 20 players of all time -- and the only Frenchman better than "Zizou" as he is known, was Platini.
His genius is set to be on display again in Portugal where France will meet England, Croatia and Switzerland in Group B.
Zidane made his international debut 10 years ago, scoring both France goals in a 2-2 draw against the Czech Republic.
Since then, he has proved himself the key player in the team. He arrived exhausted at the Euro 1996 finals and as a result France were knocked out of the competition against the Czechs in the semi-finals.
He was in impressive form two years later at the World Cup. France won on home soil as they defeated Brazil 3-0 in the final, Zidane heading a double in the first half.
With a top-form Zizou, Les Bleus went on to win the European Championship two years later. Should he repeat his 2003-04 season's best performances and France be crowned again, Zidane could well leave the French national team.
He would also leave a whole country with tears in their eyes.
Wenger brings out the best in France's Henry
PARIS (Reuters) -- Once known for his blinding pace and little else, France's Thierry Henry arrives at Euro 2004 next month as probably the best all-round striker in world football.
Now considered by FIFA as one of the top three players in the beautiful game, Henry's transformation from a bit-part player on Juventus's left wing to a centre-stage role with Arsenal has more than a touch of the fairytale about it.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's decision to end Henry's unhappy spell in Turin and convert him into a central striker has been spectacularly successful for both player and club.
Henry has still got the pace, but Wenger has brought out the 26-year-old's superb dribbling skills and encouraged him to both run at defenders and to shoot on sight.
It is a potent combination.
But what really sets Henry apart from other top strikers such as Ruud Van Nistelrooy or Christian Vieri is that the Frenchman makes nearly as many goals as he scores.
As Vieri discovered at first hand, when Henry created two and scored two more in Arsenal's 5-1 Champions League demolition of Inter Milan at San Siro last November, Henry's true value lies in what he brings to a team's entire attacking manoeuvre.
Though that contribution has been reaching new levels for the past three years, Henry had long been marked out as a future international.
Born into the new-town suburbs of Paris and detected by the radar of France's prestigious national football academy at the age of 13, he signed professional forms for Wenger at Monaco three years later and made his debut two weeks after his 17th birthday.
He signalled his arrival on the European stage in Monaco's fine run to the Champions League semi-finals in 1997-98 and then reached a global audience a few months later as France's top scorer in their World Cup-winning side.
His reward was a move in January 1999 to Italian greats, Juventus, though his Serie A career never really took off.
Months later, Henry made a welcome return to Wenger's orders, this time under the grey skies of north London, and the man from Les Ulis has not looked back since.
A Euro 2000 winner with France, and a league and FA Cup double winner with Arsenal in 2002, the only setback has been his share of the blame for France's collective debacle at the 2002 World Cup, notably his 25th-minute red card in their second game against Uruguay.
Henry has since kept his temper in check, with Arsenal being the biggest beneficiary.
Performances such as the one at San Siro have helped him to become his country's top scorer in European club competition, eclipsing Jean-Pierre Papin's 38-goal record and propelling Arsenal into the latter stages of the competition.
Yet despite all the accolades which include England's Footballer of the Year Award in 2003, Henry remains unfazed by the media attention, most of which he shuns by dividing a quiet and very private life in London's highbrow Hampstead with commuting up to Arsenal's Hertfordshire training centre.
Though 'Titi' remains totally devoted to France, he revels in London being a cosmopolitan city where the public acknowledge one of the world's top sportsmen, but leave him well alone.
One thing is for certain, defenders at Euro 2004 will not be so understanding.
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