mercredi 8 décembre 2010

French Football Addicts Endure Cold Turkey at Christmas

Naturally, I've spent much of the past week fretting over what to give family and friends this Christmas (a mosquito net for Didier, a copy of 'Das Kapital' for Eric, snoods for everyone else). I've also been contemplating the value of the mid-season break, which calls a halt to all matches in France between December 22nd and January 15th.

Many players and managers in England envy their continental conterparts, although fans and shareholders of Premiership and lower league clubs tend to relish the abundance of festive fixtures. The tangible benefits of a hiatus during bleakest winter are obvious: players and pitches can recuperate. But this time of year isn't merely about the tangible, it's about the magical...

If Wayne Rooney awakes on Christmas morning to find that long desired Hornby train set at the bottom of his bed, he will have just a couple of hours in which to assemble and play with it before he must report for "light training" with Ebenezer Ferguson. Meanwhile, across the Channel, Yoann Gourcuff will be free to spend the entire day tearing round on his new tricyle or sitting happily on his daddy's knee. Gourcuff père - who currently manages Ligue 1 side Lorient - can forget tactics and turn his attention to turkey and TV.

Thus the Gourcuffs will enjoy all the magical elements that make up a typical family Christmas: too much food and booze, the constant threat of an almighty argument, 'Trivial Pursuit' and 'The Great Escape'. In comparison, the Rooneys' Christmas may seem rather hollow.

The FA is unlikely ever to sacrifice one of the most lucrative traditions in its dominion. As I see it, anyone in England who favours a Christmas without football has only one hope.

So, all together now: "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

mercredi 1 décembre 2010

Damien Comolli: a Divisive Figure

The mastermind behind the resurgence of Spurs and St. Etienne?

There are those who would describe Liverpool's recently recruited 'Director of Football Strategy' as a snake. In a press conference last week, Harry Redknapp reacted angrily to the suggestion that Comolli deserves credit for assembling the current Tottenham squad. Arsène Wenger was similarly withering in his assessment of Comolli's influence on Arsenal's transfer policy: Comolli has been quick to talk-up his former role as a European scout for the Gunners. On November 9th 2008, Comolli became 'Sporting Director' at St. Etienne and was instrumental in the club's improved showing earlier this season. Ultimately though, he may weaken St. Etienne - and Ligue 1 - by facilitating the transfers of, respectively, Blaise Matuidi and Lille's centre-back Adil Rami to Liverpool.

It's worth noting that two managers were sacked during Comolli's second spell at St. Etienne, which lasted two years. His work at Tottenham coincided with the brief, unhappy tenure of Juande Ramos. Based on that evidence, Comolli doesn't engender stability.

In his capacity under - or rather alongside - Roy Hodgson, will Comolli prove to be a snake, an asset or simply ineffectual? Time will tell. Nonetheless, it's hard to overlook the symbolism of Liverpool's interest in a player named Eden Hazard, a teammate of Rami at Lille. Hodgson is clearly tempted to bring Hazard (undeniably, a tasty prospect) to Liverpool, but the manager must beware. Acquiescence to Comolli could lead to a fall from grace.

Damien Comolli's CV from 1996
1996-2003: European scout for Arsenal
2004-20005: 'Technical Director' of St. Etienne
2005-2008: 'Director of Football' at Tottenham
2008-November 2010: 'Sporting Director' of St. Etienne
November 2010-present: 'Director of Football Strategy' at Liverpool

mardi 30 novembre 2010

A Tribute to Tony Goal

Definitely poker... though perhaps not the blonde.

According to Wikipedia: 'A limerick is a five-line poem in anapestic or amphibrachic meter with a strict rhyme scheme (aabba), which intends to be witty or humorous, and is sometimes obscene with humorous intent. It may have its roots in the 18th-century Maigue Poets of Ireland, although the form can be found in England in the early years of the century.'

I've never composed a limerick before but was inspired to do so by Tony Cascarino's autobiography 'Full Time', in which Ireland's most capped footballer reveals that his Irish ancestry is entirely fictitious. Like our Tone, limericks are most closely associated with Ireland, however, their true origin (like our Tone's) is unclear. This form of poetry therefore seems the perfect medium through which to express my admiration for an unlikely hero of French football - and for his book, to which the adjectives 'witty', 'humorous' and 'obscene' can be applied without hesitation.

A clue to be found in his name,
Cas wan't the Emerald he claimed,
More a rough diamond
Who shone with Ireland,
Running for Jack until he was lame.

dimanche 7 novembre 2010

The Wonder of Waddle

I'd intended to provide analysis of last weekend's Clasico* (a term that seems a touch hyperbolic and is bound to provoke the ire of the Académie Française) but as I went about my research, the internet yielded something much more compelling:

This extraordinary pop romp features two Phocéen idols, Chris Waddle and Basile Boli. Of course, Waddle had form - his proto-Jedward duet with Glenn Hoddle, 'Diamond Lights' - but 'We've Got a Feeling' represents a dramatic shift in his artistic sensibility. If 'Diamond Lights' captures the stark, mulleted discomfort of Thatcherite London circa 1987, 'We've Got a Feeling' is evidence of a changed Waddle.

In 1989, Waddle left Spurs for Marseille. He flourished in his new Mediterranean habitat, rapidly establishing himself as a favourite among fans and teammates alike. No more fiddling with synths in Hoddle's bedroom, now Waddle was dancing to a more relaxed rhythm... the rhythm of bongo-infused Europop.

Demand for new material from the melodic midfield maestro climaxed when, in 1992, he helped Marseille to a fourth consecutive league title. By this time, Waddle's partner in crime, Hoddle, was plying his trade for Swindon. He too had enjoyed success in sunnier climes - with Arsène Wenger's Monaco - before swapping the Riviera for the Commuter Belt, no doubt on the advice of Eileen Drury.

Although a glittering solo career beckoned, Waddle was the consumate team player. He cast about the Marseille changing room for someone who could match Hoddle's charisma and vocal dexterity. Step forward "big and strong" centre-back, Basile Boli. As the video testifies, the French international brought to proceedings a whimsy which simply doesn't feature in Hoddle's repertoire. Spurs-Art-Rock purists and mullet enthusiasts objected. Hoddle was dismissive, telling the NME, "Basile Boli was clearly a sinner in a previous life."

For my money though, the result of Waddle's second creative union confirms that his fans at the Stade Vélodrome were spot on to award him the nickname, 'Magic'. 'We've got a feeling' is as fresh today as it was on its release. If the accompanying video seems dated, that's because it served as a blue print for most of those now seen on MTV.

Waddle was an excellent footballer (witness his backheeled goal in 1989's Clasico) but 'Diamond Lights' and, above all, 'We've Got a Feeling' are his real legacy. On the pitch, he was just a man: as a popstar, he bestrode a spectrum of genres like a giant.

*For the record PSG beat Marseille 2-1 at the Parc des Princes. The salient details of the match are as follows: maligned PSG strikers Erding and Hoarau scored a goal each and there was no reported violence between rival Ultras, largely because Marseille fans weren't allowed to attend.

mardi 2 novembre 2010

Simply the...

Gratuitous Brest shot.

Having beaten St. Etienne 2-0 on Saturday, newbies Brest are top of Ligue 1. This is cause for mild celebration among neutrals - and delighted jigs among amateur gagmen writing in English about football in France (we're a small but proud community). I've been unable to prevent my busy journalistic/perverted subconscious from composing Bre(a)st related tabloid headlines to describe the team's success. It's been happening frequently and always at the most inconvenient moments, so what follows is an attempt to purge myself of the problem.
  • Perky Brest smother Stéphanois threat
  • What a pair! Brest 2-0 St. Etienne
  • St. Etienne disappointed at failure to get to grips with Brest
  • Brest silence knockers
  • Brest nip ahead of Rennes
  • Bust up in Ligue 1
  • Support lifts Brest
  • Timely substitution lifts Brest
  • Brest milk it as league leaders
  • Brest bazooka opposition
  • Brest: a two point cushion at the top
  • Brest two points in front
  • Brest a handful upfront
  • France's top side bra none
  • Do Brest have the legs?
  • Rivals plan to expose Brest
I think I'm cured...

mardi 26 octobre 2010

Bald Ambition

The infamous love scene from art house classic, 'Leytonstone, mon amour' (dir. Frank Lebœuf).

World Cup winner and former Stamford Bridge favourite, Franck Lebœuf, revealed this week that he is studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Instute in LA. Since his debut in the iconic 'Taking Sides' (2001), I've followed Frank's acting career with great enthusiasm and have been disappointed to see it stagnate - discounting, of course, the irresistible triumph that was his performance in 'The Ball is Round' (2008). Frank feels that he's often overlooked by French casting directors because of his celebrity status and believes he's more likely to land prime roles in Hollywood - where nobody has a clue who he is - than at home. He recently told an interviewer, "In France, you get labelled: in the US, they give you a chance."

I think Frank has a point. Earlier this year, Vincent Cassel shaved his head to play the lead in 'Notre jour viendra'. Had Frank been on board, the studio could have saved itself the cost of a buzzcut and a couple of Bic razors. Stateside and free from prejudice, Frank - who has enormous range - will be hoping to rival his younger brother Shia, as well as rent-a-frog Gérard Depardieu, but poses a particular threat to that corner of the industry dominated by fellow slap head Bruce Willis.

In anticipation of a New Wave of Frank-mania, I've taken to musing about what might have been...
  • Frank Lebœuf as Ghandi - Frank's (on pitch) philosophy of resistance without violence chimes perfectly with the teachings of Bapu. Dickie Attenborough surely regrets offering the part to Sir Ben Kingsley.
  • Frank Lebœuf as King Mongkut of Siam in 'The King and I' - Yul Brynner had undeniable charisma but were his feet as fast as Frank's? Mais, non.
  • Frank Lebœuf as Jordan O'Neill in 'GI Jane' - A contentious one, this - given that the film revolves around the notion of a female Navy seal - but, as Marcel Desailly will testify, Frank knows a thing or two about the ladies. He's also good at pull-ups.
  • Frank Lebœuf as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now' - Little more than a cameo, yet demanding a powerhouse actor capable of infusing every line with tension... went instead to Marlon Brando.
  • Frank Lebœuf as Uncle Fester in 'The Addams Family' and 'Addams Family Values' - As Frank repeatedly demonstrated on 'A Question of Sport', he does comedy like very few ball-playing centre-backs can. Christopher Lloyd has never been invited to appear on 'A Question of Sport'.
  • Frank Lebœuf as Harry Stamper in 'Armageddon' - Bruce Willis and co. stopped the asteroid but in the process Willis' character, Harry Stamper, bought the farm. The film was released in 1998, when Frank's team accomplished their improbable mission and Frank didn't die, ergo, Frank's harder.

lundi 25 octobre 2010

Plebs 1 - 0 Sarkozy

It's official: the French are revolting.

As you're no doubt aware, France is in the grip of massive retaliatory strikes against Sarko's plan to raise the standard retirement age to a scandalous 62. But the brave, patriotic men of Ligue 1 choose to soldier on and, inspired by them, I have abandoned my satirical placard and crate of Molotov cocktails, and reached instead for my laptop. As Paris smoulders and the mob swells, I fear for the city's broadband networks. Such desperate times call for brevity so, without further ado, I offer you a thirty second round-up of this weekend's developments in the French top flight.

Rennes suffered their first defeat of the season; at home to Montpellier. Had Dimitri Payet - the league's highest scorer with eight goals in ten matches - converted a penalty during injury time, St. Etienne would have beaten Caen and thus replaced Rennes as leaders.

Despite recent signs of the big three stirring from their summer hangovers, only Marseille secured maximum points. Victory over Lille propels them from seventh to second, level with St. Etienne and Brest who are newly promoted yet haven't conceded since August. Brest's latest triumph: 0-2 versus Bordeaux. The Girondins can take some solace in another abject performance by Lyon, their supposed championship rivals. Claude Puel's side drew with whipping boys Arles-Avignon; a result that will surely accelerate his dismissal.

At the wrong end of the table, Lens and Monaco accompany Arles-Avignon in the relegation zone. Auxerre, evidently deflated by their experience in the Champions League, climbed to 15th thanks to an impressive win over PSG. Although the Parisians now find themselves in sixth place, I'm not alone in thinking that they're the best balanced of the front-runners: PSG's massive fanbase has been daring to contemplate a first championship title since 1994.

Elsewhere, teams nobody cares about lost to teams that almost nobody cares about.

Long live the Republic.

jeudi 21 octobre 2010

Critical Mass: a Profile of Pierre Ménès

Pierrot at his most seductive.

What to write about this week? Victories for Lyon and Marseille in the Champions League; Rennes, unbeaten at the top of Ligue 1; or perhaps Karim Benzema's potential move to Man United? No. I'd rather write about an extremely fat man, Pierre Ménès.

Canal Football Club, broadcast live every Sunday evening, is the French Match of the Day. Admittedly, it was established in the early nineties and is only available to subscribers to Canal Plus - but you get the point. Among the motor-mouths and has-beens who people the show, Pierre Ménès stands out not only for his bulk but because of his articulacy and his capacity to provoke. His arguments are as weighty and well-rounded as he is.

To the best of my knowledge, Ménès is the only football pundit to have worked as a holiday rep. at Club Med (a career that would have suited Robbie Savage and Ian Wright). Bored of orchestrating conga lines - though presumably not of the "all you can eat" buffet - Ménès decided to try his chubby hand as a freelance journalist. He was recruited by France Football but defected to
L'Equipe in 1983. There, he initially covered Ligue 2, then Ligue 1, before becoming a special correspondent on the national team and finally on Arsenal.

Since Ménès left L'Equipe in 2004 to focus on radio and TV, his celebrity and waistline have steadily grown. He has appeared (as himself) in several films and is frequently lampooned by Les Guignols de l'info, France's answer to Spitting Image.

No official record exists, however, I'd estimate Ménès' tonnage to be between that of Matt Le Tissier and an Airbus A380. Still, Ménès might not be the fattest figure in French football. Montpellier's media-friendly president Louis 'Loulou' Nicollin is another epic tubby, famous for his girth and his explosive forays into the Paillade changing room. It's impossible for the armchair fan to judge whether Nicollin is actually fatter than Ménès given that even wide angle lenses can't accomodate both prize porkers simultaneously. Probably best then to declare that they shared all the pies.

Before signing-off, I want to apologise to any morbidly obese readers. If I upset you, I'm sorry. Now help yourself to another cream cake - it'll help.

Til soon and good appetite.

vendredi 15 octobre 2010

The Stéphane Guivarc'h Anthology

Our hero today: a match analyst and... swimming pool sales rep. Honestly.

Ode to a Young Stéphane Guivarc'h

An inauspicious start at Brest,

One goal in six matches he hit,

Relegation promptly followed,

And Brest sold the lousy tit.

Ode to Stéphane Guivarc'h I

Frogs were flavour of the month,

When he became a Magpie,

But how he made the Mack'ems crow,

And the Geordie faithful sigh.

Ode to Stéphane Guivarc'h II

A short but sour British sojourn,

From St. James's to Ibrox,

Malchance would not cease to hunt,

This poxy fox in the box.

Ode to Stéphane Guivarc'h III

At Auxerre fate shone on a number 9,

Who played number 2 on the Toon,

And was reckoned by the Daily Mail,

To be a proper goon.

Requiem for Stéphane Guivarc'h

Marseillaise faded into Last Post,

As time had its inarguable say,

"Send him to wor knackers yard!" they screamed,

They didn't know the donkey could play.

mardi 12 octobre 2010

Brave New Blue World

Gaffer nose best.

Now to a topic I'd intended to avoid: the French national team. Believe it or not, the title of this blog was the fruit of great deliberation. 'French Football' encompasses too much that happens outside France - not least Wenger, Anelka, Evra and Henry - and about which you can read elsewhere. My objective is to write about football in France, hence the catchy 'Football in France is Rubbish' and my reluctance to discuss a group of players among which the most celebrated ply their trade abroad.

But in recent weeks, circumstances have changed. The majority of Laurent Blanc's refurbished Bleus play in France - quite a novelty given that during the World Cup, Raymond Domenech picked a maximum of four home based players per match. The side that beat Romania 2-0 on Saturday will not be unfamiliar to followers of English clubs. Champions League regulars Lloris, Mexès, Alou Diarra and Benzema started alongside a trio londonien composed of Clichy, Nasri and Malouda. Most pertinent to this article though are the remaining names on Blanc's teamsheet: Rami, Réveillère, M'Vila and Valbuena. All four play in France, as do Lloris and Diarra and the three substitutes used; Gourcuff, Payet and Rémy.

Blanc's apparent preference for Ligue 1 players may be misleading since it's highly unlikely he would have overlooked Evra or Ribéry for the opening matches of his reign (Saturday's was the fourth) had either been available. Both, however, are suspended thanks to their roles as protagonists of the strike in Knysna. While the positivity now surrounding the France squad has been widely attributed to its new manager, several pundits have suggested that the absence of these two erstwhile stars has also been beneficial. Ribéry in particular is a divisive figure. His feud with Gourcuff is an open secret and seems to have affected the Bayern bad boy less than his more sensitive compatriot, who is regarded by many in the game (somewhat inaccurately) as a middle-class softy.

Whatever their status in the squad, Evra and Ribéry will return. The same is not necessarily true of Jérémy Toulalan (also punished in the light of Knysna-gate) owing to a dramatic dip in form and the success of his replacement. Of the lesser-known players to feature in the victory over Romania, twenty-year-old Yann M'Vila is surely destined to be the most significant. The defensive midfielder emerged last season at Rennes and has shined brightly during this campaign, in which Rennes have supplanted St. Etienne at the top of the table. His playing style and temperament have elicited comparisons with Makelele. In fact, at six foot, M'Vila is far more physically imposing than the man the French call 'Papy Claude' and regard as the definitive récupérateur. Difficult then, to imagine him in a Rennes shirt for long...

Discounting Réveillère (who is thirty) and the overrated Valbuena, the other newcomer to assert himself in Blanc's plans is centre-back Adil Rami. Four years older than M'Vila and not nearly as gifted, Rami has nonetheless seized his opportunity with impressive authority. Big and combattive, he is an ideal partner for Philippe Mexès who - despite a torrid month with his club, Roma - reaffirmed against Romania that he is a world class defender. Blanc favours footballers in his own mould (like Mexès) rather than stoppers, but clearly appreciates the value of Rami's uncompromising tackling and strength in the air.

Besides their A.O.C label, the defining characteristic of Blanc's selections has been youth. A glance at the following list of names and ages reveals a core of over a dozen current squad members who can hope to reach their prime around the 2014 World Cup (some much later).

The "experienced professionals"
Lloris (23) GK
Mandanda (25) GK
Clichy (25) DF
Nasri (23) MF
Gourcuff (24) MF
Diaby (24) MF
Lassana Diarra (25) MF
Benzema (22) FW

Les Jeunes Turcs

Rami (24) DF
Sakho (20) DF
Cissokho (23) DF
M'Vila (20) MF
Payet (23) MF
Matuidi (23) MF
Rémy (23) FW
Gameiro (23) FW

Dare I say it? The future looks rosy for Blanc's Bleus.

lundi 4 octobre 2010

The French (Im)Press

Anelka is a charmless moron. Who knew?

Football enthusiasts in France might well lament the quality of their domestic leagues and are certainly entitled to grumble about the national team's summer shenanigans, but in one respect they are blessed. France boasts two of the best sports periodicals available anywhere; the daily L'Equipe and France Football, which is published twice weekly. The history of each is long and illustrious and, appropriately, their tone is closer to that of a broadsheet than a tabloid. L'Equipe covers all popular sports (in France, that means handball and judo as well as football, rugby, tennis etc.) while France Football does exactly what it says on the cover but includes a sizeable section on the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A.

For the purpose of this blog, I buy every copy of L'Equipe and France Football and confess that the former can be a slog on slow news days (think Sky Sports News in print). Nevertheless, both are consistently well written and exert undeniable influence in France and beyond. L'Equipe journalists Sébastien Tarrago and Vincent Duluc were the first to establish the nature of the clash between Raymond Domenech and Nicolas Anelka in South Africa. The paper's editors saw fit to emblazon its front page with Anelka's earthy prose: "Va te faire enculer, sale fils de pute!"* Critics and allies of the squad's original wayward striker have since noted that his punishment would surely have been less severe had the issue remained in house. Once revealed to a public already baying for blood, however, the FFF had no choice but to respond in the strongest terms.

Tarrago and Duluc are among the incumbents of a proud tradition of tenacious, cerebral journalists who have contributed to either France Football or L'Equipe - and often to both. From Camus to Cantona, the French have intellectualised the beautiful game with greater wit and conviction than other nations. It follows that no self-respecting French sports journalist would be without an opinion on, for example, Sarko: thus, one imagines that in their company 'What do you think of Roma's prospects in Europe?' becomes a rather ambiguous question.

Nor are retired players who join the ranks of France's fourth estate employed merely to dispense clichés. World Cup winning left-back Bixente Lizarazu is as measured and incisive on the front page of L'Equipe as he was on the pitch. For France Football, Jean-Michel Larqué - a pillar of the great St. Etienne sides of the sixties and seventies and now a well-known commentator - writes with authority and no small amount of verve.

To conclude, the armchair fan can be thankful that while French football stumbles through one of its darkest periods, the sports press in France is in rude health.

*"Go fuck yourself, you dirty son of a whore!"

dimanche 26 septembre 2010

The Second Coming of the Stéphanois?

Green goal-getter, Dimitri Payet.

It's lazy to suggest that St. Etienne is a club cursed by its illustrious past. Why lament a trophy cabinet that remains the largest and most glittering in France? But the Stéphanois last won Ligue 1 in 1981 and entered football purgatory soon afterwards. Just as St. Etienne's disappointments were magnified by what came before, any hint of a resurgence is greeted with unique expectation.

The current side head the table and on Saturday overcame Lyon in the 100th Rhône derby - the most eagerly awaited in decades. Pundits agree that St. Etienne are punching above their weight, but that view is invariably aired in tandem with sentimental recollections of the club's halcyon days. The implication being that the Stéphanois are simultaneously over and under-performing.

St. Etienne finished the 2008-2009 season in 17th place. This season, the team has accumulated more points in six matches than it had by Christmas last year. The festive period was something of a tipping point as it saw Christophe Galtier, previously Alain Perrin's assistant, promoted to manager. Galtier has since sought to blend a squad of youth and experience, proving himself adept at developing young players and shrewd in the mercato. He must also be thankful to have inherited a captain such as Loïc Perrin, sidelined for the majority of last season but now fit and clearly demonstrating why he has attracted the attention of numerous Premier League scouts.

Three players in particular represent Galtier's philosophy as well as his good fortune: Perrin, Laurent Batlles and and Dimitri Payet. The manager has shifted his captain from the right wing to central midfield, alongside him (and, in fact, sitting a little deeper) is the thirty-five year old Batlles, recruited for free from Grenoble this summer. Against Lyon, the veteran played the 402nd league match of his career. Galtier's other notable signings were defenders Sylvain Marchal and Carlos Bocanegra, thirty and thirty-one respectively. In contrast, Payet is twenty-three and was one of five players (including Perrin) under twenty-six in Saturday's starting line-up. The Réunionais striker is the talk of Ligue 1 having scored seven goals in seven matches this season. Lauded for his pace, vision and technical ability, Payet is a product of the celebrated academy at Nantes-Atlantique. Doubts persist about his robustness and consistency but, for now, they're muted by goals, goals, goals.

Players and manager alike have been at pains to emphasize the season's infancy and insist that greater obstacles await St. Etienne, not least Marseille's visit to the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard next weekend. The champions have bagged more goals than their hosts but are nursing a vulnerable defense. Marseille will pose a more complicated challenge than Lyon but Payet and co. should be confident of gaining victory. As for the long term prospects of the Stéphanois, it's difficult to envisage the team's ageing elements - who generally occupy defensive poitions - being as resolute in May as they have been in August and September. But a dramatic loss of form seems equally unlikely and I firmly believe that Payet and fellow young gun Emmanuelle Rivière (the club's highest scorer last season and three years Payet's junior) will supply sufficient goals to secure St. Etienne European qualification.

The second coming of the Stéphanois? No. But a purple patch that will do much to restore faith in a fallen idol.