Matthew Monk is a school teacher
from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
Read earlier columns
Merci Beaucoup, Les Bleus
"Of course, the standard that all European teams must
meet is that of the French. They have taken no part
in the qualifiers, and may just suffer in Japan/Korea
because of it. Since 1998 the French have barely
changed their squad, and although they barely needed
to, to win Euro 2000, the likes of Petit, Djorkaeff
and Desailly are fast approaching 'veteran' status and
no alternative players have been exposed to
competitive football for a long time."
"The Confederations Cup win should not be seen as a
pointer to an easy second world championship. What
will happen to France if Henry, Barthez or Viera get
injured between now and next June? Better-paid
commentators argue that the French have a squad of
almost unlimited depth and ability, but how much top
level experience do Mikael Silvestre and Benoit Cauet
have? Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that
France will struggle next year, but the glorious age
of French football will end one day, and if this
ageing squad is broken up by injury, I wonder how soon
it will happen."
I wrote these words last October (at the end of
'Quantifying the Qualifiers') but never seriously
expected it to come true. I was trying to be a little
controversial and though provoking in one of my first
articles for this site, but my ruse failed. I doubt
many people read it, certainly few took it seriously.
France could never lose...
This has been a horrible competition for the French.
Everything the World Champions tried simply failed to
come off, and they have already limped home, beaten
and bowed. Failing to score any goals must be the
most sickening thing for French fans, seeing as this
side bristled with goalscoring potential. Think about
it: Zidane, Henry, Trezeguet, Cissé, Wiltord, Petit,
Dugarry - how many more goalscorers do you want?
Now think back four years. France demolished the
whole world with Stephane Guivarc'h playing up front
more or less on his own. Then they banged in goal
after goal - in the last ten days the nearest they
have come is hitting a few crossbars and posts.
Things change, and nothing ever stays the same, but
did any of you really, truly expect to see France get
knocked out in the first round? No, neither did I.
But I don't want to dwell on the last 10 days -
someone else can do that. This is a celebration of
the four magical years that have just ended.
First and foremost, I have to state an interest. I
like French football, and have done ever since I saw
that wondrous midfield taking shape in 1982. My first
sight of it came in another defeat, when England
demolished Platini's team 3:1 in Bilbao, but even then
you could tell there was something special about
Platini, Giresse and Tigana.
Fast-forward two years, and Luis Fernandez has been
brought into the side to give it more steel - Platini
is cut loose and they dominate the European
Championships. I fell in love with the French way of
doing things that summer, and all through Mexico 86 I
followed their progress almost as closely as England.
It was beautiful to watch, mesmerising even. Platini
was awesome; Giresse was almost as good. Tigana never
seemed to tire, and had skills to surpass almost
everyone. And then there was Fernandez, the hard man,
who could teach most 'schemers' about playing in
midfield. It was a magical team; unsurpassable it
seemed. Until it fell apart, France went backwards
and became the forgotten men of European football.
I forgot how good that generation was, and it was not
until 1996 when the BBC ran a history of European
football that I truly remembered what I had seen when
still at primary school. But the Euro 96 version was
dull, and while the likes of Desailly, Deschamps,
Zidane and Djorkaeff where there, they hardly inspired
me in the same way Platini's team had. So I was not
expecting much of them in 1998. How wrong I was.
France were probably not the best team ever to win the
World Cup; for every Zidane there was a Guivarc'h, for
every Desailly a LeBeouf, for every Deschamps a
Diomede. But it was a team capable of exquisite
moments, and sheer brilliance. What about that first
match against South Africa, when an expectant
Marseille was given just what it wanted. The
atmosphere was electric, especially during the singing
of La Marseillaise. Pride and passion reverberated
around the Stade Velódrome, and though it was a bit
shaky, a 3:0 win got France on their way.
The next memory that sticks in my mind - the first
Golden Goal against Paraguay. This alone brought the
World Cup alive. Think back to that afternoon in
Lens, with 41,000 packed into the Stade Felix
Bollaert. Paraguay were determined not to go out
easily, and with Chilavert proving why he was among
the best goalkeepers in the world, they held out
against the French siege. The tension in the ground
was as real and as effecting as the Napoli semi-final
in 1990, and while France piled forward, Chilavert
90 minutes flew past and with the golden goal in
effect the score was still nil-nil. Just seven minutes
remained until penalties. Laurent Blanc was by now an
extra centre forward, when Pires and Trezeguet (who
both should have scored earlier in the game) combined
well in the Paraguay half. The ball was knocked down,
and Blanc strode in to score the first Golden Goal in
World Cup history. Les Bleus progressed. The nation
now believed, and more importantly, so did the team.
Then came Italy, and Iggy Pop coaching Catenaccio to
its ultimate. Penalties was written all over the
France-Italy quarter final, and I was glad France won.
I was sad for Robby Baggio, Maldini, Di Biagio and
Vieri, but it was good for the tournament. France was
starting to come alive with each successive win, even
if all the seats inside that stadium had been sold to
corporate sponsors. The semi final was only ever
going to have one outcome, but this was when the
nerves kicked in. Croatia were solid and defensive,
and took the lead. Lilian Thuram inspired a magical
comeback, but after Bilic cheated to get Laurent Blanc
sent off the last few minutes was horrible. Still you
always thought France would get through, and they did
and it was good to see Bilic punished in defeat.
And it was inevitable that Brazil should reach the
final to play France. The Penta as they called this
World Cup was all about Brazil winning a fifth world
title, and expectation in Rio, Sao Paulo, Belem,
Brasilia and other places was so high that defeat was
seen as impossible. Why? Because Brazil had Ronaldo.
Ronaldo was well on his way to being the most famous
man on the planet, and on his day he was the best
footballer. Yet expectation was too high. Brazil
simply could not handle the pressure of the Penta, and
Ronaldo was so out of touch in the final that his
teammates all but gave up.
In the end, it was actually quite easy for France and
three-nil was a deserved scoreline for the most
one-sided final since 1982. France believed they would
win, while Brazil were too scared to lose. Favourite
memories? How about Zidane's opening goal, the first
in open play since 1986? Then there was Ronaldo's
chance at the start of the second half, when Barthez
made a great save. And who could forget Petit's
third, when he charged down the field as if to
emphasise that the team with the worst strikers in the
tournament had defeated the team with the best
forwards in the world, because it had the best
midfield. It was a great final, and to give Brazil
some credit, they played a full part as well.
But once again French midfielders had won a major
football prize for their country in Paris - the
beautiful football of Platini had beaten the best of
Europe, now Zidane's team had beaten the best in the
world. What followed next? Paris was overwhelmed
with celebration. More than a million people swamped
the Champs Elysee, and the party carried on for days.
The mood in the country changed. Throughout the
tournament scumbag right-wing politicians charged that
the French team was not 'pure' - it contained
'immigrants' and non-whites. But as the huge laser
display on the Arc de Triomphe proclaimed, the World
Cup was not won for France by a white man or a black
man - he had been a blue man. Allez Les Bleus.
It was a brilliant month, and it was all because of
France. Don't forget that in the next few days when
everyone tells you how poor France where. Well done
Uruguay, well done Senegal, well done Denmark - you
all finished above the mighty France, and yes, you
deserved to. But if I thought France might struggle a
bit in this World Cup last October, I have a much
stronger conviction today that they are going to be
back - in two years time.
Zidane, Desailly, Henry, Pires and co. still have
another trophy to defend, the European Championship,
and mark my words, Europe is going to feel the
backlash in Portugal. I would not like to be up
against them when the qualifiers start in the autumn.
But for now, thanks for the memories, and here's
looking forward to some more French success. France
play football the right way, the best way. But what
was it I wrote, " …the glorious age of French football
will end one day, and if this ageing squad is broken
up by injury, I wonder how soon it will happen?"
Sometimes I hate being right.
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