Prepared Blanc wastes little time undertaking French challenge
New French coach Laurent Blanc's first match is a Norway friendly next week
Blanc has a lot of cleaning up to do with the team after the World Cup
Questions remain as to which of the World Cup players Blanc will stay on
Why take on a challenge in which you can't do any better when you can go somewhere you can't do any worse? That would seem the gist of the rationale behind Laurent Blanc's reported decision to turn down the coaching job at European champions and Italian double-winners Internazionale and instead take over the France side after the most embarrassing World Cup campaign in its history.
At his opening press conference as new France coach, Blanc revealed that he went for the job in 2004, when his predecessor Raymond Domenech was appointed, and he did not want to miss out again.
"If you have a second chance and miss it, there may not be a third chance," Blanc said, "and even the events at the World Cup, which were tough, never changed the way I felt."
Blanc can look to the future all he wants, but there is no getting away from France's recent past. Under Domenech, the team reached the 2006 World Cup final but since then has been in freefall. It had a wretched European Championship in 2008 and a dreadful World Cup qualifying campaign. In South Africa, the players went on strike after the French federation had expelled Nicolas Anelka for swearing, according to L'Equipe, at Domenech during a half-time row (Anelka has refuted the story and is suing the paper). France scored one goal, won one point and finished bottom of its group, below unfancied hosts South Africa.
As the public fell out of love with Les Bleus, government ministers accused the players of representing everything bad about today's French society.
"They are dominated by tormented egos and star salaries, cut off from the reality of the country and their fans, and split into clans," wrote Le Monde.
Blanc's job is to reconnect the team with its public, and he has wasted little time in winning over the fans. Fully two weeks before his first squad announcement made on Thursday before next week's friendly against Norway, Blanc asked the French FA council for permission to drop all 23 players who took part in the strike action. It was a move that won overwhelming support: after all, the players had insisted they all acted as a group (even if reports since have suggested that up to 10 players, none who could be called senior, were against the action). Blanc's conclusion, then, was that they should be punished as a group. He is big on unity, and on taking responsibility.
His first squad contained 16 players from Ligue 1, which got underway this weekend, and there were notable call-ups for two Italy-based players, Philippe Mexes and Jeremy Menez, who had been ignored under the previous regime. As he happily answered questions about every player, the mood around the press room lifted: this was a far cry from Domenech's games and riddles.
Last week Blanc met with the Ligue 1 coaches to discuss a more transparent way of working with the national team. This, again, is in total contrast to Domenech, who infuriated coaches with his lack of contact.
"When he was Bordeaux coach, Blanc had hoped to have more contact with the national coach, but in explaining his new framework, he did not criticize anyone," said Gerard Houllier, the French FA's technical director.
"Blanc wants to change the terrible image of French football, and that's a good thing," added Auxerre coach Jean Fernandez.
As a World Cup winner with France in 1998, and league title winner as Bordeaux coach in 2009, Blanc has credibility in France that Domenech never had. He has spoken of filling notebooks brimming with ideas from his previous coaches and constructing himself as an identikit coach taking the best bits from all his mentors:
"The competitive streak of Robert Nouzaret (his Montpellier coach), the courage of Jose Mourinho (Barcelona assistant coach), the defensive principles of Claudio Ranieri (Napoli coach) and, from Marcello Lippi and Sir Alex Ferguson, that notion of man-management, making sure your group is unified and adheres to the same principles".
One of his most instructive spells came at Barcelona, where he would often sit with then-assistant Mourinho and teammates Luis Figo, Gica Popescu and Pep Guardiola, swapping ideas about the game.
"We used to talk a lot about football, about tactics, and we worked together to resolve the team's problems," remembered Lippi of their days together at Inter. "He was always trying to find solutions, and it's clear he is made to be a manager."
Ferguson had his eye on Blanc ever since United beat his Montpellier side in the 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup, and has spoken of the reassurance that he would generate to his teammates.
"That gave him the potential to become a great manager," he said.
He has demanded that his new players respect the shirt and backed the French league's new rule forbidding them from donning giant headphones in mixed zones, usually worn as a tactic to avoid talking to the press. He bemoaned the huge wages young players get paid and wants to restore the national team "to become a guiding light in the career of every player."
This France reserve team has enough good players in it to beat Norway next week, but the big test will come when Blanc has to name his next squad, for the first European Championship qualifier against Belarus in September. Will there be a place for Patrice Evra, the captain who, according to L'Equipe "had neither the dimension, the charisma or the aura to wear the armband"?
What about Eric Abidal, accused of being one of the ring-leaders but who has since said he wants to play for France under Blanc? Or William Gallas, who broke his three-year press silence to lay into Domenech in an extraordinary attack in magazine Les Inrockuptibles and said something similar at a French FA hearing last week?
Blanc has said that he could pick "two, three, maybe six of this squad" for the next game, but the French public are hoping that it would be nearer half or even more of the current group. France Football has described Blanc's short reign as "a mini-revolution," but it is already having the right impact. As one high-profile Paris-based reporter admitted after that opening press conference:
"We got more sense out of him in one hour than we did in six years under Domenech."
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