France

Road to the finals

France may have reached the World Cup final in 2006, but the success of Les Bleus in Germany merely papered over the ever-widening cracks in the squad. Galvanised once more by the irrepressible (and now retired) Zinedine Zidane, a transitional period was inevitable and duly struck during qualification.

Although joined in the qualification group by the World Cup winners, Italy, the other teams were seemingly there to make up the numbers. Up against Ukraine, Scotland, Lithuania, Georgia and perennial whipping boys the Faroe Islands, the road to the final seemed clear. However, without Zidane and former greats like Thierry Henry and Claude Makelele on the way down, the French did their level-headed best to avoid the trip to Switzerland and Austria. The Scottish, in particular, proved to be their nemesis, taking victory 1-0 in Scotland and, embarrassingly, in the Stade du France.

Sandwiched in between these deflating defeats, however, was evidence of the French’s residual winning spirit, ability and flair. Coming up against their conquerors in the World Cup final, Italy, the French made a mockery of their world’s best tag by dispatching them in the Stade du France. A goal from Thierry Henry and two from Sidney Govou rounded off a superb display for a 3-1 victory. After defeat to the Scottish in Glasgow, the French again got back on track with four consecutive victories before the Scottish curse struck again.

The result was a nail-biting finale, with the Scottish agonisingly close to the finals before dropping out of contention after losing to the Italians. This was confirmed when Thierry Henry secured victory against Lithuania and broke Michel Platini’s goal-scoring record in the process. Nevertheless, after finishing second to Italy yet again, it was hardly a campaign to raise spirits.

Manager

Raymond Domenech has been manager of France since 2004, but his tenure has been a tumultuous one to say the least. Charged initially with restoring confidence after Les Bleus’ shocking performances in the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, Domenech also took on the much harder task of replacing the footballers that had defined a generation of international football. Whether he has achieved (or will achieve) that is still to be decided.

Born in Lyon on 24th January 1952 and of Spanish-Catalan descent, Domenech enjoyed a relatively prosperous and long career as a professional himself. A resolute defender, he began his career with his hometown club Lyon and enjoyed eight years there, amassing well over 200 appearances and a Coupe de France winners medal in 1973. During this time, he also received most of his 8 caps for the national side before moving to RC Strasbourg in 1977. Although he spent 4 years there, his later career was somewhat more itinerant, as he drifted from Strasbourg to Paris Saint-Germain to Bordeaux before finally retiring with FC Mulhouse.

His time at FC Mulhouse had been in a player-coach capacity, and his transition into full-time managerial employment was smooth. Staying with FC Mulhouse until 1989, he then had the opportunity to manage his old club Lyon. The international game beckoned and, in 1993, he took over with the under-21 side, ushering in the golden guns which would dominate international football at the senior level soon enough.

Finally, after 11 long years with the under-21s, he was given the chance at the very highest level. With Jacques Santini put out of his misery after Euro 2004, Domenech was the surprise choice, particularly considering the low ebb French football found itself in at that time. The magnitude of the task facing Domenech was reflected in results during qualifying for the 2006 World Cup finals and qualification was only assured when Claude Makelele, Lilian Thuram and Zinedine Zidane came out of retirement to steer the faltering squad to Germany.

Although expectations were not particularly high, the French (and Domenech) confounded critics to reach the final, losing on penalties to the Italians. Despite this success, Domenech remains a divisive figure in French football and only a trophy, as it did for Aime Jacquet, will shut up his critics.

Three to watch

Franck Ribery

With Zidane gone and many of the French stars reaching the big 3-0, a new superstar was needed for the fans to get behind, and up stepped Franck Ribery. Although initially considered an inexplicable selection by Domenech, Ribery has become one of the lights of the current French squad, with his pace and trickery on the wings a formidable prospect for any opposition.

Currently Ribery is plying his trade in the Bundesliga for heavyweights Bayern Munich and, despite problems with injuries, amassed a very respectable goal tally. Having moved there for a huge 25 million euro sum in 2007 from Marseille on the back of some fine performances in the World Cup, he is well-set to make his mark on world football and what better place to do it than this European Championships?

Karim Benzema

Physically intimidating, quick and deadly in front of goal, Benzema is one of the starlets of world football. At just 20 years of age, the Lyon striker has already been involved with the first team squad since 2004, and notched an incredible 24 goals in 37 games in 2006/2007. The big clubs soon became interested, with Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger and Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson both admirers, but Benzema re-signed with Lyon in March 2008 in the hopes of further improving in his home country. However, with his performances ever more impressive, it will most likely be sooner rather than later that he waves goodbye to Ligue 1.

Having made his debut for the national side in 2007, Benzema has already hit the mark 3 times in just 7 games. Now seemingly a shoe-in for the squad, he could do for France what Ronaldo did for Brazil in the 1998 World Cup. Keep an eye out.

Hatim Ben Arfa

Another youngster (come on, who hasn’t read enough about Thierry Henry?), Ben Arfa is also another of Lyon’s finest prospects. Having developed in the first-team squad since 2003, Ben Arfa is now a mainstay of the championship-winning side, adding another dimension to their wingplay.

Having enjoyed a successful time with the under-17 squad, scoring a remarkable 15 times in 22 appearances, Ben Arfa was fast-tracked through the national team’s ranks and made his debut in 2007 with the national side. Although only a sub at this stage, he has already made an impact, scoring his first goal in the 6-0 hammering of the Faroe Islands in qualifying, and could enjoy more pitch-time in Austria and Switzerland.

Win or lose?

The bookies are all largely in agreement on France’s chances of winning the tournament, with Ladbrokes, Paddy Power, and 888 Sport all listing Les Bleus as 8/1. William Hill opts for 15/2.