What is wrong with France?

If I’m being honest, the 2010 World Cup, the event billed as football’s biggest showpiece, has been somewhat of a disappointment. Low on goals, low on quality, low on drama, Africa’s first World Cup has certainly failed to live up to expectations thus far. Whilst one would be spoilt for choice when asked to select the tournament’s most underwhelming game, one would be hard pressed to look beyond France’s opening Group A clash with Uruguay last Friday.

Emblematic of the tournament as a whole, the opening day’s drab 0-0 affair with Uruguay painted Les Bleus as a shadow of their former selves. Devoid of the inspiration of the French sides of 1998, 2000 and 2006, the performance of Raymond Domenech’s side alluded to a team in turmoil, begging the question, what exactly is wrong with France?

France skipper Patrice Evra blamed his side’s dismal showing against Uruguay on the horns used by fans at the World Cup, claiming that “[my team-mates and I] can’t sleep at night because of the vuvuzelas. People start playing them from 6am. We can’t hear one another out on the pitch because of them.”

Even the most ardent French supporter would fail to believe that their side’s problems are entirely attributable to the use of vuvuzelas. Since the contentious nature of their qualification for the World Cup, French football has been shrouded in controversy and confusion. The team travelled to South Africa amidst a backdrop of unrest, disharmony and mediocrity. The apparent rot that has set in amongst Les Bleus can be traced back as far as the summer of 2008. At the last European Championship finals, France suffered the ignominy of finishing bottom of their group, with just one point and one goal scored. Determined to swiftly banish the memory of their abject display in Austria & Switzerland, France were unable to top their qualifying group for World Cup 2010, finishing a point behind group winners Serbia.

As such, finishing second led to their now infamous two-legged play-off clash with the Republic of Ireland, whereby the ‘handiwork’ of Thierry Henry created the tie’s decisive goal. Despite securing qualification for the World Cup, many were unhappy by the way in which France won the tie, with former World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit explaining to The Sun that, “the feeling among the French public is one of embarrassment.” More recently, French football was rocked by the news that national team players Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou had slept with the same underage prostitute. Despite the fact that full investigations into the matter have been postponed until the end of the World Cup, there is no doubt that the revelations would have had a negative impact upon the squad.

Although unrest and cliques within national team camps are commonplace, the level of press coverage claiming divisions within the French squad suggests that all is not well amongst Domenech’s charges. Eschewing the initial omissions of the likes of Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, Domenech’s decision to leave out Chelsea’s Players’ Player of the Year Florent Malouda from the side’s starting line-up to face Uruguay was baffling. Although Malouda has since expressed surprise at being left out, reports have suggested that his omission stemmed from a bust-up between the pair, with Domenech thought to have expressed displeasure at Malouda’s “over-zealous” attitude in training. Malouda’s usually outspoken compatriot William Gallas allegedly refused to speak to the media throughout the entire duration of the World Cup due to anger at being overlooked for the French captaincy.

Patrice Evra has sought to quell such speculation; speaking of rumours of unrest, the Manchester United man stated, ‘‘That’s bull. That’s not true. The mood is good.”

Aside from issues off the field, it is clear to see that France have problems on the field. The absence of Real Madrid anchorman Lassana Diarra has led to an enforced formation switch from 4-2-3-1 (France’s preferred system throughout the qualifying campaign) to the more attacking 4-3-3 (the formation that was debuted in France’s friendly against Costa Rica on May 26). Whilst the change in system indicates a new found proclivity for attacking play, altering the formation so close to the start of tournament failed to provide the players with the chance to sufficiently adapt; unconvincing draws against Tunisia and (latterly) Uruguay, as well as a defeat to China would suggest that this is the case.

France’s lack of cohesion against Uruguay was symptomatic of the fact that many of the players are not yet accustomed to the new system. Former French international Jean-Pierre Papin, highly critical of Domenech, highlighted the inadequacies of Nicolas Anelka as a lone frontman, stating “Nicolas Anelka is not a striker. You need a player who is astute in front of goal. I would play Djibril Cisse or even Andre-Pierre Gignac.” The lack of fluidity and creativity in France’s midfield meant that the intelligent Anelka was starved of service, and forced to play deep and wide, thus meaning that France spent long stretches of the game without a recognised centre-forward to trouble Uruguay’s defence.

Most bookmakers currently rank France as eighth in the list of favourites to win the World Cup outright, a staggering fact when considering the international success the nation have enjoyed over the last 12 years. Unfortunately, their display against Uruguay did little to suggest that the bookmakers have gotten it wrong.

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