"With extra officials you're aware of more things: the fear of getting caught is there. There's no more shirt-pulling, players know that the referee is there." At this point in his interview with Sky Sports, Michel Platini was doing reasonably well. We haven't seen the kind of holdups at set pieces, caused by pushing and shoving, to which we've become accustomed in club matches. Then, warming to the tune he was parping on UEFA's trumpet, Platini added an extra long note of satisfaction. "With five, officials see everything." If he hadn't already been reassessing his feelings on the matter, today's play might have forced him to.
Things done changed, as Notorious B.I.G put it. Back in the day (Monday), France and England tied 1-1 in what probably stands as the tournament's least entertaining game, while Ukraine was carried to the top of Group D by a sumptuous double from Andriy Shevchenko, beating Sweden. "We can't play like that against a very good team," said French coach Laurent Blanc afterwards. "I'm glad to get this game out of the way," said the English manager Roy Hodgson. "No one is happy and we grieve together," said the Swedish boss Erik Hamren. The only thing to stay the same in Group A on Friday was defeat for his side.
Like all the best rags-to-riches stories, this one has a twist. In fact, Franck Ribery's story dovetails nicely with that of the France national team: both were loved and supported after reaching the 2006 World Cup final, and both were vilified following the strike threat in protest of Nicolas Anelka's exclusion from the squad four years later. Neither has been completely forgiven, but Euro 2012 offers the perfect opportunity for redemption.
Laurent Blanc takes France into Euro 2012 on a 20-game unbeaten run, which includes victories over Germany, England and Brazil. But the French national team coach is still downplaying his team's chances. France has not won a tournament finals match since the 2006 World Cup semifinal (it was winless at Euro 2008 and at the 2010 World Cup), and Blanc is quick to point out that France (ranked 16th) is currently listed nine spots lower than its first opponent, England (seventh), in the FIFA world rankings.
When the U.S. meets France in a high-profile friendly on Friday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3.com, Univisión), it's probably a good thing that it'll take place in the Stade de France, the futuristic spaceship of a stadium outside Paris, instead of at the venerable Parc des Princes on the west side of town. U.S. fans have enough bad memories from the latter stadium, where Germany spanked the U.S. 2-0 in World Cup '98 and the final goal was scored by none other than current U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
France coach Laurent Blanc declared at his Tuesday news conference that he plans to field two different sides for this week¹s friendly matches against USA (Friday) and Belgium (Tuesday). "It will be a young team against USA and a stronger one against Belgium," he said.
As international debuts go, the 17 minutes that Marvin Martin played for France against Ukraine last Monday night were special by any standards. He made nine successful passes out of nine, took three shots and scored two goals, made one successful dribble and another assist, taking the corner from which fellow debutant Younes Kaboul scored in the 4-1 win.
Laurent Blanc has spent his first nine months in charge of the France team painstakingly repairing the damage of the 2010 World Cup: both to the image of the team, which became a global laughingstock after going on strike in South Africa; and its players, unhappy and underperforming with then-coach Raymond Domenech in charge.
1987 is hailed as a golden year in French football. It was the year that Karim Benzema was born, as was Samir Nasri, Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa. These players made up the squad that won the 2004 U-17 European Championship, beating Cesc Fabregas's Spain 2-1 in the final (it was Nasri that scored the winner).
The unpleasant memories of France's World Cup fiasco were called to mind in recent weeks when two Ligue 1 players went on strike to force moves from their clubs. The first was Stephane Sessegnon, who had fallen out with Antoine Kombouare, his coach at Paris Saint-Germain, and missed training for three weeks as he agitated for a move to Sunderland. It was only after he returned to the fold that PSG agreed a deal with the Premier League side.
Laurent Blanc claimed to have had no second thoughts about taking the job as France coach after its embarrassing World Cup campaign, and in his five months in charge, he has led the team to the top of its Euro 2012 qualifying group. France was in London this week for a friendly against England at Wembley, which it deservedly won, with the 2-1 score line greatly flattering the hosts. This week provided a good opportunity to look back at Blanc's comments from his first news conference as France coach, and see how much progress has been made.
France coach Laurent Blanc and Jose Mourinho, in charge of Real Madrid, used to spend hours talking football when the pair crossed paths at Barcelona during the 1996-97 season. Blanc was a player then, and Mourinho part of Bobby Robson's coaching staff (they were often joined by fellow players Gica Popescu, Luis Figo and, ironically, current Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola). Nowadays the two coaches are still on friendly terms, and it¹s safe to assume that at the moment, one subject dominates their conversations more than any other: France and Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema.
In the days leading up to France¹s 2010 World Cup squad announcement last May, the French press played a guessing game called "Who's the new Chimbonda?" The game involved plucking names out of thin air predicting who would be eccentric French coach Raymond Domenech's surprise call-up.
Bordeaux broke a French top-flight record when it won the league title in 2008-09, winning its last 11 games to jump four places and overturn a six-point deficit. At the time, it was as though a perfect storm had descended over Les Girondins. Stats later showed that no team that season scored more goals from headers (22), from set-piece moves (25, nine from corners), from substitutes (10) or by coming from behind (23 points).
It's been over two months since France's players went on strike during the World Cup in protest of the French football federation's decision to send home striker Nicolas Anelka, but it might as well have been yesterday given the mess the team faces as its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign gets under way.
Last month, France won the Under-19 European Championships on home soil by beating Spain 2-1 in the final. It was the nation's first youth title since 2005, when a side that contained Yoann Gourcuff, Abou Diaby and Hugo Lloris won the same tournament in Northern Ireland.
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.
By the time defender Thomas Vermaelen had played just four games for Arsenal after last year's $13 million move from the Dutch club Ajax, coach Arsene Wenger already knew he had a bargain on his hands.