Since ascending to the peak of the world game in 1998, France have roundly been tipped as contenders in each major tournament they have approached, though only in the European Championships of 2000 and the World Cup of 2006 have they succeeded in matching the expectation surrounding a seemingly strong squad of players.
This summer, for the first time in over a decade, France approach a major competition arguably not considered amongst the very elite nations competing for glory.
Les Bleus’ stuttering progress to the finals was highlighted by their infamous winning goal against the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs, a strike which rather summed up France’s messy and wholly unconvincing qualifying campaign, which followed swiftly on the heels of an utterly miserable Euro 2008.
Inevitably, the gaze of criticism has fallen upon coach Raymond Domenech, a man known for his bizarre outbursts, questionable tactics, forthright character and unique selection policy.
That ‘Dom’ survived the European Championships of two years ago was something of a shock to the international media. After deciding on a risky selection policy with regards to his squad, les Bleus were simply awful as they earned one point from a possible nine to finish bottom of the group, hopelessly adrift of Italy and Netherlands, and even behind Romania.
It quickly emerged that only nepotism in the FFF (Federation Francaise de Football) saved the former Olympique Lyonnais coach, who is set to become the most capped national team trainer when France meet Uruguay in their opening World Cup game, scheduled to be his 76th match in charge. Evidently, the French FA felt they didn’t want the presence of a 1998 World Cup-winning ‘ego’ marching around in their ivory towers, snubbing the likes of Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc, who had just enjoyed a highly promising first season with Girondins de Bordeaux. Instead they stuck with Domenech, who has turned the experience of watching France from a pleasure to a chore with his cautious style.
So the man with a catalogue of catastrophes to his name at international level continues to lead the men in the Maillot du Coq, and he continues to add to his reputation as a somewhat erratic coach. Indeed, even the FFF have taken note of public opinion and are ready to jettison their favourite come July 11.
During his tenure, Domenech has been unable to foster any great team spirit or cohesion within the camp, at least on the competitive field. When France tackled Ireland over two legs back in the autumn, it was not les Bleus who seemed to want victory most. Instead, they progressed to South Africa largely because of the fine goalkeeping of Hugo Lloris, a fact often overlooked, as well as the audacity of Thierry Henry. And this is by no means an isolated incident.
Even when France reached the final in Germany four years ago, reports from inside their camp suggested that Domenech was not so much the ringleader of the team as a closely-associated spectator, with Zinedine Zidane used as the rallying point instead.
Les Bleus no longer have the luxury of ‘Zizou’ - a true great - to call upon. Their present day talisman is Franck Ribery, the Bayern Munich winger who has provided them with much of their spark since Zidane departed the international stage. The 26-year-old has established himself as one of the foremost offensive talents in the modern day, but he is not poised to join the Parthenon of absolute greats where Marseille-born Zidane resides. Indeed, greater question marks than any perceived lack of talent surround the German-based star.
Injury has utterly decimated season 2009-10 for Ribery. For FCB he has mustered a mere 541 minutes of league action, playing the full 90 only twice to date, though he did make a scoring contribution on his return from injury against Hamburg at the weekend. In and out of the team at the Allianz Arena due to physical problems, no one can really be sure of his form ahead of South Africa, or if he will even be fit.
Otherwise, France do have a galaxy of stars at their disposal, but arguably the burden of expectation on them is too great. Thierry Henry, for example, is steadily falling out of favour at Barcelona, while oft-cited messiah Karim Benzema is struggling for regular starts at Real Madrid and has never really hit it off in the international arena in any case. Of course, these factors could allow such talents to go to the competition relatively fresh and with a point to prove, a fact that could play into France’s hands.
The over-riding fear remains that Domenech will fail to pick the correct team or will employ overly defensive tactics when the finals do arrive. Faced with a relatively kind group of South Africa, Uruguay and Mexico, France should certainly be aiming to progress to the knockout stages, but thereafter it becomes a lottery.
Les Bleus do possess the potential to go deep into the competition, but as yet it remains locked. Domenech is not the man to break the code, and success will require something extra special from the team, as well as a little luck. Come Brazil 2014, we may actually be able to discuss France as serious candidates.
Become a fan of Goal.com USA's Facebook fan page for all the latest news and insight into everything the related to the beautiful game