Dark horses France out to banish painful memories
France go into Euro 2012 on the back of an impressive 20-game unbeaten run and boast a fearsome forward line, but painful memories of recent tournaments are keeping hopes of a triumph at bay, at least for now.
Around this time two years ago, the ticking time bomb inside the French football team was about to explode in spectacular fashion, as Les Bleus’ campaign at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa descended into chaos.
Striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home for a foul-mouthed outburst at coach Raymond Domenech. The rest of the French squad reacted by calling a strike, which in turn prompted two members of the coaching staff to walk out in disgust.
The fiasco, which many pundits and players had foreseen for months, ended with France’s humiliating 2-1 defeat to South Africa, leaving them bottom of the group with only one point and one goal to their name.
But a lot has happened since that miserable night in Bloemfontein. The unpopular Domenech has been replaced by Laurent Blanc, one of the heroes of France’s 1998 World Cup win, and the mood of despondency and discord has slowly lifted.
Now the stats paint a far rosier picture. Les Bleus have not lost a match since September 2010. Their 20-match unbeaten run includes notable victories in friendly matches over Brazil, Germany and England, who they will face on their opening Euro 2012 clash on June 11.
Stats like that would leave most fans confident their team can lift the trophy, but in France, the scars of 2010 and from the early elimination in Euro 2008 have not yet healed. Memories of being winning the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000 are long gone.
"Euro 2008 was a fiasco, and the World Cup in 2010 was even worse," explains Ronan Folgoas, football writer for French daily Le Parisien. "Yes, they have won a lot of friendly matches, but the games at Euro 2012 will be totally different. There will be a lot of pressure on this young team.
"In the last three tournaments, France has only won one out of nine group games," Folgoas added.
France's less-than-impressive qualifying campaign for Poland and Ukraine has also helped to reign in any possible overconfidence.
France relied on a late penalty from Manchester City's Samir Nasri in the final group match against Bosnia to secure automatic qualification as winners of what was considered a weak group.
Les Bleus took 21 points from 10 games, only managing 15 goals in the process.
"There's a difference between being optimistic and dreaming," Eurosport's editor-in-chief Cédric Rouquette told FRANCE 24. "It is typically French to be pessimistic."
The negativity appears to shared by bookmakers, most of whom who rank France fifth in line to lift the trophy, behind Euro 2008 champions Spain, the Netherlands, England, and highly fancied Germany.
But Rouquette believes the dark horse status could suit a French team that boasts an enviable array of attacking talent.
Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who has 32 goals to his name this season, will lead the attack. He will be joined in the forward line by Manchester City's Samir Nasri, along with Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribéry, the man who many believe holds the key to French hopes of success.
Ribéry has so often disappointed whilst wearing the blue shirt and became more renowned for his off-field antics than his feats on the pitch.
But there are signs he may be finally about to deliver on the big stage.
He recently ended a three-year scoring drought by notching goals in consecutive warm-up games against Iceland and Serbia.
"Ribéry has struggled in the past because of psychological problems," said Le Parisien's Folgoas. "He has taken on too much pressure, and there have also been issues in his private life. But now he's starting to look like the player he was six years ago. The old Ribéry could be back."
If Ribéry and Nasri supply regular ammunition for Benzema, France could take some stopping.
"If France are to win the tournament, these three big players Benzema, Nasri and Ribéry, will all have to shine," said Rouquette. "They have never really proven themselves in international tournaments, but now could be the time."
If the sight of those three players wasn't enough to strike fear into opposing defenders, it might come from a look at the bench, where the French league's top scorer Olivier Giroud and Paris Saint-Germain's skillful attacker Jeremy Menez lie in wait. Chelsea's Florent Malouda and Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa could also play a key role.
Weak link at the back
But as Iceland's two goals in the first 34 minutes of last week's friendly showed, France's defense could be its Achilles’ heel.
When France ruled world football around the turn of the century, their dominance was built on a mean defence formed by the likes of Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc himself.
But in 2012, Les Bleus will be relying on the relatively inexperienced partnership of AC Milan's Philippe Mexes and Valencia’s Adil Rami to protect goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
"Even if Ribéry, Nasri and Benzema play well, it will not be enough," lamented Rouquette. "The defence is too weak and inexperienced. An experienced player like Patrice Evra is supposed to be a leader, but you never see him playing like that."”
The image of Evra and co lifting the trophy in Kiev on July 1 may seem implausible for France's fans, but the surprise triumphs of Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004 show that stranger events have unfolded in the history of tournament football.
Much will depend on Les Bleus' first match on June 11.
If France beat injury-hit England in Donetsk, the clouds of cynicism shrouding the team since that night in Bloemfontein may finally begin to lift.
As Rouquette says, "tout est possible."