Matthew Monk

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 this event.

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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 held firm.

    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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