The European giants were on opposite trajectories during the 2000s, but the tide has turned as the two sides meet on Wednesday night ahead of Euro 2012
By Clark Whitney & Robin Bairner
A decade ago, France were on top of the football world. With a squad that included the likes of Zinedne Zidane, Thierry Henry, Didier Deschamps, and Lilian Thuram, les Bleus were reigning European and world champions heading into the 2002 World Cup.
At the same time, Germany were a mess. Having used an old and jaded squad at Euro 2000 which saw them drop out of the tournament having taken just one point in the group stage, die Mannschaft were in a transitional phase.
But as of late, the fortunes of both national teams have reversed dramatically. Germany have reached the semi-finals or beyond in their last three tournaments, and alongside Spain are co-favourites to win Euro 2012. France, by contrast, were knocked out of Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup in the group phase. And despite an improvement as of late, les Bleus are not considered serious contenders for this summer’s tournament.
So what has brought about the latent improvement in the Germany team and the decline of France? The biggest cause for change in both instances is management.
Following their failure at Euro 2000, it was clear that Germany - who featured a 39-year-old Lothar Matthaus in their team - were desperate for new, young talent. In response, the German Football League (DFL) instigated widespread changes, requiring every first and second division Bundesliga team to have a youth academy.
|UPS AND DOWNS | Performance since 1998
||World Cup 1998
||World Cup 2002||Group stage
|Semi-final (3rd place)||World Cup 2006||Runners-up
||Euro 2008||Group stage
|Semi-final (3rd place)||World Cup 2010
While youngsters grew up in Germany’s revamped academies, the senior national side had a rocky spell. Their team were effective - if not entirely impressive - in a run to the 2002 World Cup final, but the turmoil resumed with an early exit from Euro 2004.
Things were different at the 2006 World Cup, however. Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski injected the youthful quality that was sorely missing in 2000, and more importantly, Joachim Low began his affiliation with the German national team, as assistant to trainer Jurgen Klinsmann.
Shortly after the tournament, Klinsmann left and Low was appointed head coach, a position he has occupied ever since. The consistent quality he has brought to his post, and the duration of his tenure have meant continued progress; though results for Germany have not exactly improved, the class of the team has decidedly increased as more and more stars have matured and the squad have added depth.
The same cannot be said for France, and at the very bottom of les Bleus’ problems is former coach Raymond Domenech. The 60-year-old may have been in charge as his side advanced to the World Cup final in 2006, but history will remember the true leader of the team as captain Zinedine Zidane, who allegedly was the man who did the talking in the dressing room.
Following Zidane’s retirement after the tournament, everything fell apart for France. The trainer had no sense of management and isolated experienced players in strange and bizarre ways: for example, he dropped Robert Pires in 2006 because the midfielder was a Scorpio. Needless to say, it did not take long for Domenech to lose the faith of his players, and any semblance of team spirit.
When France were eliminated in the group stage of Euro 2008 following a string of woeful results that included a 4-1 loss to Netherlands, instead of resigning, he proposed to his girlfriend. Things went from bad to worse at the 2010 World Cup when players staged a very public mutiny, and France were humiliated as they were again knocked out in the pools. Following the tournament, he finally left, but four years too late.
As terrible as Domenech was as a coach, there are more faces to be blamed at the French FA (FFF). President Jean-Pierre Escalettes, who resigned following the 2010 fiasco, was close with the coach, and simply would not do the necessary and sack his friend. And for Escalettes’ negligence and Domenech’s utter incompetence, a nation suffered.
|TRANSFER VALUE: GERMANY VS FRANCE SQUAD
Domenech's replacement, Laurent Blanc, has succeeded in turning things around for France, who have not lost in nearly 18 months. Under real leadership for the first time in years, les Bleus are finally playing with spirit and tactical competence. But the current squad, though blessed with talents like Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery, are not on the same level as that which was so successful around the turn of the millennium.
France, like Germany, are in a difficult position due to the large number of immigrants involved in their academies. Many French-born players of African descent opt to play for Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, or otherwise, rather than their native country. And even if these are not great stars, the decision of such players not to line out for France has hindered les Bleus’ depth. Germany face a similar danger with Turkish immigrants, but to date they have been fortunate: thus far, Nuri Sahin is the only big German-born star to have opted to represent his ancestors’ homeland.
Another critical issue hindering France’s progress is that many young players who do intend to represent les Tricolores move to England in their youth, where the Premier League’s emphasis on power and pace inhibit their chances to earn playing time. Les Bleus won the 2010 U19 European Championship, for example, and had a very talented team. But their biggest star, Gael Kakuta, has yet to really earn a chance at Chelsea, having been loaned to Fulham and Bolton before returning to France in January. He has since scored twice in four appearances for Dijon.
Due to immigrants choosing other international affiliation, and trouble advancing their own youths, France have a big problem in their limited options outside Blanc's first XI, and it shows in their aggregate market value. Even without Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski, and Mario Gotze, and with just 20 players to France's 23, Germany's stars are valued at €45m more than France's.
Beyond personnel, Blanc still has a long way to go in order to get the best out of his team. The defence is vastly improved, but there is a lack of cohesion in attack that stems from the individualism of Ribery and Jeremy Menez. The players often do not know which runs to make, and there is a lack of cutting edge inside the penalty box, especially if Karim Benzema and Loic Remy are absent, as both will be on Wednesday.
France have a long way to go, but are well past the nadir that was June, 2010. Realistically, their goal at Euro 2012 can be a semi-final appearance: anything more would be possible, but defying the odds. Germany on the other hand are miles ahead of where they were around the year 2000, and their squad strength and depth have increased steadily since 2004. Two sides on the up and up will meet on Wednesday, but there can only be one favourite, and that is the team poised to end a 16-year trophy drought.
Follow Clark Whitney on
Follow Robin Bairner on