Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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N'oubliez pas les Bleus

    It's time that you, the reader, learnt a few trade secrets. You know that at World Cup Archive we have predicted which 16 teams we think will advance to the Second Round. And you know that the site is predicting an Italian victory. So how did we come up with all that?

    It was fairly simple. Webmaster, Jan Alsos, asked all the columnists to submit their predictions - first to fourth in each group and who would win the tournament. From there, Jan assigned points to all our group predictions (including his own): 4 points for a group winner, 3 for second place, and so on. In each group, the two countries with the most points became the teams that the site predicted to advance.

    The winner? Even more straightforward. Three columnists selected Italy and no other country received more than one vote.

    I agonised over my selections (after all, I don't want to let the team down!) and I'm sure the others did too. I probably spent a few hours ranking the teams in each group from first to fourth.

    But when I started thinking about who I would predict to win the World Cup, I instantly thought of a moment, late in the first half of the 1998 Final, and my mind was virtually made up.

    That's not to say that I made my decision lightly. When friends and colleagues ask for predictions, they normally don't ask me about which teams I'm tipping to make the knockout phase, who will win Group F, etc. They invariably want a football expert (you can see I've got them fooled) to tell them who will win the World Cup.

    Yes, I may have made my prediction quickly but I certainly didn't make it lightly. It's the one thing you really want to get right.

    Now, back to that moment in the 1998 Final which inspired my selection: France leads Brazil 1-0 and half time is rapidly approaching; the French attack again with a long ball played diagonally towards the penalty box; the Brazilian defenders miss it; and the French centre forward runs on to the ball and shoots but Brazil's 'keeper, Taffarel, saves well. The result is a corner.

    The story hasn't quite finished. The corner is long and the ball is eventually collected inside the box by that same French centre forward. He wins another corner and, from that, Zinedine Zidane scores for the second time. France 2, Brazil 0.

    Who was that French centre forward who forced those corners and might have scored himself?

    OK, it's not meant to be a tough trivia question. I'm talking about Stéphane Guivarc'h, a player who won a place in the French team with a couple of prolific seasons at Rennes and Auxerre. I didn't know an awful lot about Guivarc'h before the tournament and although he had limitations at international level, I was not totally unimpressed by what I saw. Still, he was probably never going to top the World Cup scoring charts and I didn't pick the French to win the '98 tournament because I felt they didn't have enough firepower up front. Who was going to be their Romario, their Paolo Rossi?

    Could it have been Monsieur Dugarry? No. He is more the creator, an inside forward. And what about Thierry Henry and David Trézeguet? They were obviously talented but both were very young - still uncut diamonds.

    Ultimately, France was not hindered by its shortcomings in attack and, amazingly, every French goal in the knockout matches was scored by a defender or midfielder. Count them - Laurent Blanc in the Round of 16; Lilian Thuram (twice!) in the semi-final; and in the Final, Zidane (twice) and Emmanuel Petit struck.

    The French midfield was quite clearly one of the 1998 edition's best - if not the best. Their defence was also exceptional and, consequently, the team was able to win the World Cup despite the forwards' failure to score at the business end of the tournament.

    So what does France offer in 2002? The midfield has lost Didier Deschamps but it now boasts a Patrick Vieira nearing his peak. Robert Pires will be missed but, if we are comparing the 2002 team to the champions of four years before, we must acknowledge that he didn't spend much time on the pitch during that tournament. Besides, a midfield that can call on Vieira, Petit, Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff, Alain Boghossian and Claude Makelele isn't a midfield that is lacking for much.

    Laurent Blanc, who was suspended from the 1998 Final, is gone from the defence but, otherwise, France still looks solid at the back with Desailly, Leboeuf, Lizarazu, Thuram and co.

    And let's get back to poor Stéphane Guivarc'h. Injury has recently put a premature end to his professional playing career. But there is a harsh truth here that the man himself would probably not deny - even if he was fully fit and in his best form, Guivarc'h would almost certainly not be going to Korea/Japan as a member of the French squad. How could he? Henry and Trézeguet are no longer just young talents; they are two of the world's top forwards. And along came Sylvain Wiltord and now Djibril Cissé. The production line seems endless.

    The forward line, where France was a bit short in 1998, is now one of the most feared. Thus I barely hesitated to predict a repeat triumph for les Bleus.

    I was surprised that I was the only WCA writer to pick France (though Matthew Monk has since come on board) and I find many of the arguments used by pundits making a case against the French to be rather dubious.

    Some feel that the players might lack hunger as the French won last time, then they won at Euro 2000 and they won the Confederations Cup last year. It has also been pointed out that France is sure to have an extremely tough draw through the knockout phase.

    I just don't buy the "lack of hunger" line. Winning can become a habit and, in the last 4 years, France's record in competitive matches is 21 wins, 4 draws and only 3 losses. (You might know that Australia handed France the most recent of those losses in last year's Confederations Cup but I just thought I'd mention it anyway.) And those 3 losses were in competitions that France eventually won. When les Bleus have really needed to produce the goods, they haven't failed to do so.

    France undeniably has a tough draw. If matches go to form, the French might have to play England, Brazil and Argentina before they even get to the Final. There will be no margin for error against opponents of that strength and a succession of tough encounters might take its toll. Indeed, one of the most frightening things about predicting a French victory is that they have to play a team from Group F in the Round of 16 and, if their World Cup ends that early, those of us that have backed France might have enough egg on our collective faces to make several omelettes. (Or a lot of French toast perhaps.)

    I have learnt in the past, however, that it can be dangerous to use the draw as a basis for predicting a team's success or failure. If a team is good enough to succeed, whatever failures it has are usually of its own making. The French had a very tough run through Euro 2000 - they still won. And their trophy lifting days may yet continue.

    Italy, Argentina and Brazil - countries which seem to perennially challenge - have very strong claims at Korea/Japan. England, Germany and Portugal should not be discounted too quickly. And the Spaniards have a brilliant squad. I suspect the only thing keeping them from the second or third line of betting is their history of World Cup catastrophes.

    But as our wonderful football festival begins in the Far East, n'oubliez pas les Bleus.

Don't forget les Bleus.



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