France in disarray on eve of opener
Raymond Domenech changed France's system just weeks before the World Cup
Three pre-tournament friendlies exposed weaknesses all over the pitch
Thierry Henry will start on the bench, but don't be surprised if he gets his chance
There are obvious benefits to keeping opponents in the dark before a game as important as a World Cup group opener, but not many coaches do the same with their own players. Raymond Domenech, in charge of France, has always been a little different: He is standing down after the tournament, to be replaced by Laurent Blanc, and seems determined to live up to his "Crazy Ray" nickname before he bows out.
That explains the total confusion surrounding the team and the formation likely to start against Uruguay in Group A's opening round on Friday. After six years of sticking to a 4-2-3-1 system, to the extent that he even fielded defensive midfield pair Lassana Diarra and Jeremy Toulalan in a home qualifier against one of Europe's weakest sides, the Faroe Islands, Domenech changed to a 4-3-3 three weeks before this tournament.
"You can't turn up before a World Cup still learning a new system the coach has just invented," Bixente Lizarazu, one of 11 of France's 1998 World Cup winners now working for the media, told TV station TF1. His former teammate Christophe Dugarry, perhaps Domenech's most outspoken critic, told TV station Canal Plus, "I wouldn't have done a single thing the same as that man. He is a total disgrace."
Domenech insisted that the withdrawal of holding midfielder Lassana Diarra through injury forced him to change the system, even though he has Alou Diarra, and possibly Abou Diaby, who can play that role. It seems more likely that Franck Ribery's reluctance to play on the right side has left him with no other option, given that he needs to accommodate the left-footed Florent Malouda, his only outfield player in decent form. Malouda takes a spot in left midfield with Ribery on the left wing.
"Ribery should sacrifice himself for the team and play on the right so Malouda could play [further forward] on the left," Patrick Vieira told Canal Plus. Added Malouda to French sports daily L'Equipe, "Players are not here to enjoy themselves, and say, 'I want to play on the right, or in the middle.' "
France tried the new system in three pre-tournament friendlies, winning one, drawing one and losing the last, embarrassingly, to China, ranked 84th in the world. The system highlighted a range of weaknesses: a right flank of Bacary Sagna, Yoann Gourcuff and Sidney Govou that barely functions; a center forward, Nicolas Anelka, who has lost the knack of scoring goals; and a center-back pairing between Eric Abidal, a left back, and William Gallas, still half-fit and upset not to have been named captain, that could struggle against the World Cup's most prolific strike force of Luis Suarez (49 goals last season) and Diego Forlan (28 goals).
Thierry Henry is captain but stuck on the bench, desperate for an opportunity to become the first Frenchman to play in four World Cups. That's why he agreed to Domenech's offer of a place in the squad, but not the starting team, when they met in Barcelona before the squad announcement.
Domenech has named Patrice Evra on-pitch captain after giving the armband to seven different players in the last 34 games. "They miss a real leader, a screamer, a guy capable of talking and putting his mates back in their place," former French fullback Willy Sagnol told RMC Radio. "In 1998, there was Laurent Blanc. in 2006, we had Lilian Thuram. Today, no one has embraced this role." Domenech even checked if Claude Makelele, 37, would come out of international retirement for the tournament. He said no.
Henry may yet get a chance because Anelka, preparing for his first World Cup appearance (he was famously on the Eurostar train when France played the 1998 final), has looked ill at ease at center forward. "I prefer playing behind [the center forward]. Deep down I think I don't have the mentality of a goal scorer," Anelka admitted to the newspaper France-Soir.
Domenech's decision to leave out Karim Benzema, a result of his alleged lack of respect toward the senior French players at Euro 2008, now looks misguided. The other center-forward options are Djibril Cissé, whose last goal for France was in June 2007, and Andre-Pierre Gignac, who has had a disappointing season with Toulouse.
Benzema and Arsenal's Samir Nasri were ostensibly omitted to preserve the harmony in the squad. Though Evra claimed that the altitude training camp in Tignes brought everyone closer, new cracks have come to the surface. The senior players, according to L'Equipe, have been pushing for Diaby to replace Yoann Gourcuff in midfield. Gourcuff is France's most technically gifted player and one of their most important. But the massive media interest that his good looks, easy charm and obvious talent have attracted has become a threat to the older generation, which would rather see him out of the team.
All of these problems will delight Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez, who could not have been more welcoming to France Under-21 coach and Domenech envoy Eric Mombaerts on his fact-finding trip to Montevideo a fortnight ago.
Tabarez invited Mombaerts to watch his team train, and the pair had lunch together before Uruguay beat Israel 4-1. "I don't mind Eric seeing what we can do," he told local reporters. "We know how capable we are. It will be up to them to stop us."
This feeling of doom and gloom is not new to France before a World Cup. In 1998, there were calls for coach Aimé Jacquet to stand down, and France could not even sell out its group matches before going on to win the competition. In 2006, the team was written off after drawing its first two group games and it reached the final. A poll taken by France Football magazine last week said 60 percent of fans felt France would not make it out of Group A. This time around, the pessimism is not misplaced.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.