TO BE FAIR, THE NASTY HEAD BUTT THAT ZINÉDINE ZIDANE LAID ON MARCO MATERAZZI IN THE 2006 WORLD CUP FINAL SHOULDN'T HAVE ENDED ONLY THE CAREER OF THE FRENCH master. It should also have shown the door to an entire generation of Gallic players, including William Gallas and Thierry (Titi) Henry, who had taken Les Bleus about as far as they could. Actually, with a team of down-at-the-heels veterans, France advanced further than it should have in Germany. That sad final, in which everyone who loved soccer—and wasn't Italian—should have rooted for the French, could have kicked off an overhaul by a manager who knew how to make the most of promising young players such as Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema. But that transformation was never fully carried out, and the reason it wasn't is the same reason France was one of the worst teams at Euro 2008 and almost didn't qualify for South Africa: manager Raymond Domenech, one of the most hated men in France.
Domenech's lack of nerve (in failing to play an attacking game and to call up men who are playing well, such as Djibril Cissé) isn't the only reason the French are disappointed and Les Bleus themselves are baffled. "We don't have any idea how to play, where to position ourselves, how to organize ourselves," said none other than Henry during the qualifying round, which nearly ended in a fiasco for France. "We have no style, no guiding idea, no identity." It was, in fact, only a handball by Titi, which has become almost as famous as Zidane's head butt, that saved France's trip to South Africa.
Les Bleus came in second in their European group, behind Serbia, only after beating Ireland in a playoff. France was the clear favorite in the elimination series, and it won the opener in Dublin on the strength of a goal by the opportunistic Nicolas Anelka (although the real hero of the game was keeper Hugo Lloris). The big surprise was the second game, in Paris, where the home team was thoroughly outplayed by the Irish, who won 1-0 in regulation and forced extra time to decide the series. That's when Henry handled the ball—twice—before another superannuated Gaul, Gallas, put it in the net. Titi earned the enmity of the entire Irish Republic, while Domenech walked off acting as if nothing untoward had happened.
Now Les Bleus are clear favorites to advance from Group A in South Africa, but Domenech will finally have to give his team an identity, because this time no one, least of all the refs, will be giving him anything.
Ill-served by a defensive-minded midfield, France's forwards tend to feel like the Lone Ranger during most of each game. Henry drags himself down the pitch and will start only because his team owes him. But don't forget that Titi almost always shows up at the moment of truth, and that's what counts at the World Cup. Nevertheless, the success or failure of the French attack rides on Anelka. If he catches fire in South Africa, France could go far. If not, there will be a lot of substitutions at forward, beginning with Benzema, and few goals.
One reason France has shut down so many offenses is Domenech's insistence on playing two defensive midfielders, such as Jeremy Toulalan and Lassana Diarra, even though that means sacrificing a creative midfielder such as Florent Malouda or a forward such as Benzema. Yoann Gourcuff, known as Petit Zizou after the departed Zidane, will maneuver the ball and threaten opponents in the box. The brilliant, elusive Franck Ribéry will streak down the right side. Malouda and Sidney Govou will surely log minutes off the bench.
Lloris shores up a solid back line that conceded only 10 goals in 12 qualifying games. Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra roam the flanks, while Gallas is still fast enough to control the space around his keeper.