Rarely can a team have arrived at a World Cup with more baggage than France, whose qualification for the showpiece tournament was overshadowed by an outrageous handball at the expense of Ireland.
The flick of a hand in a playoff last November by Thierry Henry led to the goal that broke Irish hearts - and their luck - and sent the French to South Africa for the June 11 to July 11 tournament. Henry was forced to make a public apology and there was even talk at one stage of the match being replayed. It wasn’t, to the dismay of Ireland.
If that was not enough, the French team was then rocked by a sex scandal linking members of the team, including Franck Ribery, to an underage call-girl. Ribery, who is married with two daughters, could face a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a 45,000-euro fine.
Added to that is the standing of coach Raymond Domenech, appointed in 2004 but widely disliked in France and who will be replaced by former captain Laurent Blanc after the World Cup. Domenech, booed by the French fans at every game as well as being criticised by players for selection decisions, has one last chance to become popular at the World Cup, after which his contract will end.
He only held on to his job by the skin of his teeth after France’s disappointing Euro 2008 campaign and a dismal World Cup qualifying campaign.
Out with the old and in with the who?
Domenech will have to do without Zinedine Zidane, Fabien Barthez, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram, who all called time on their international careers in 2006.
Furthermore, Domenech left out three very prominent players in former captain Patrick Vieira, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri - a decision for which he got the most flak. Domenech, who has until June 1 to name his official 23- man squad, has also dropped goal-keeper Mickael Landreau, defenders Rod Fanni and Adil Rami, midfielder Yann M’Vila and forwards Hatem Ben Arfa and Jimmy Briand. In their stead, uncapped forward Mathieu Valbuena has been rewarded for helping Marseille win the Ligue 1 while midfielder Marc Planus has been included to provide cover for central defender William Gallas, still struggling with a calf injury, but now on his way back.
France, who needed Henry’s infamous handball to qualify, will face hosts South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay in Group A. But despite the damaging headlines, France will nonetheless arrive in South Africa among the traditional favourites to be crowned world champions after their exploits in winning the 1998 World Cup on home soil and then making the final in Germany in 2006.
The 2000 European champions also managed third-place finishes in 1958 and 1986, as well as fourth spot in 1982 to confirm their ability to produce the goods on the big stage.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 23, 2010.