When Raymond Domenech’s pitiful French side were dumped out of the 2010 World Cup in the group phase of the competition, the belief was that the road back to prominence for a proud and once brilliant football nation would be long and arduous. The France of 2010 were a painful shadow of the side that had come within a penalty kick of being crowned World Champions just four years earlier.
Dogged by a number of controversies surrounding key players such as Patrice Evra and Nicolas Anelka, Domenech’s France managed just one goal in the entire tournament. His refusal to play all-time leading goal scorer Thierry Henry was almost as baffling as his touchline behaviour, which culminated in a disrespectful handshake snub to South Africa manager Carlos Alberto Parreira in the final group game.
France were going home. Domenech’s top-level career was in ruins and the future of French football looked bleaker than it had for many, many years.
Fast forward two years and under new coach Laurent Blanc, France know what it means to be happy again. Playing with a freedom to express themselves that was so obviously absent under Domenech, Blanc’s side have now gone 21 games without defeat on the road to Euro 2012 and boast a new batch of young stars together with established performers who are at the peak of their powers.
The road to redemption for France is not yet complete but the transformation under Blanc has been nothing short of staggering for a country that the whole world was laughing at just two short years ago. Nobody is laughing now.
Les Blues have been drawn against England in Group D for the European Championships and the two will face off in the first group game of the tournament. It is testament to Blanc’s work that France are the outstanding favourites for the meeting on June 11th.
Individual brilliance in attack in the form of Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery is complimented by a solid midfield that boasts the artistry of Yohan Cabaye and the steel of Yann M’Vila. Obvious frailties exist in defence, Phillipe Mexes in particular looks to be a weak link that would be soon exposed at the highest level.
However, should Blanc’s men continue their fine form in front of goal and give the back four the protection it so clearly requires, they pose a frightening threat to even the continent’s very best teams.
Blanc’s arrival as France boss in 2010 signaled a shift in mentality that now does justice to their undoubted talent – he’s got them believing again. Not just in themselves, but also believing in the value of collective responsibility.
This makes for a scary prospect for Roy Hodgson’s England when they face off against the new-look Les Blues in Donetsk on Monday. Hodgson’s side will not only face a collective brilliance with renewed belief but also a mass of threats in single form.
The depth of quality in the France squad dictates that room for a Hatem Ben-Arfa or a Olivier Giroud will be scarce. It is a luxury that can only be looked on with envy by many of their rivals. Blanc’s side made short work of Estonia on Tuesday in their final warm-up game before Euro 2012, winning 4-0 with a dominant attacking display.
Blanc cut a frustrated figure throughout the match, such is his desire for perfection, but when Jeremy Menez fired in a fourth in injury time, he was up out of his dug out, his smile beaming – happy again. Much like his side. This should serve as a warning shot fired towards England and anyone else who gets in their way at Euro 2012.
The disappointment of South Africa left a painful and unwanted scar on the history of French football but their rise since then is a lesson to great football countries everywhere – they are undoubtedly back, and the depth of their talent dictates that they pose a threat to anyone with designs on this summer’s European Championships.
The threat from Laurent Blanc’s side is very real. France are back in the serious debate and at Euro 2012 don’t be surprised if it is they who are the major talking point again. Redemption awaits them.
You sense they might just grab it.