jeudi 19 mai 2011

Not My Favourite Player

Claude Makelele, my favourite player? No chance. My favourite players are flawed fantasists, like Jari Litmanen or late Youri Djorkaeff (at Bolton, when he was half-lame). But, of course, fantasists always function best with the support of a "water-carrier". Without one such teammate, flawed fantasists are simply flawed. Zinedine Zidane was a fantasist whose grip on the reality of the game was cast iron - he relied on nobody, but he certainly benefited from the work of the "water-carriers" at Juventus and Madrid, and for France. At Juve, Deschamps, the player to whom the term was first assigned by a dismissive Eric Cantona; at Madrid, Makelele; one, then the other for France. Zidane knew better than Cantona. Zidane tried to reflect his glory back towards... towards the diminutive figure in the centre-circle.

In truth, Makelele was more than Deschamps. Deschamps introduced les Bleus to a culture of winning, which he had acquired in Turin. But he did not have Makelele's ubiquity, Makelele's apparent ability to draw the ball - as if magnetically - away from opponents. If Deschamps is to regarded as a "water-carrier", then Makelele at his best was a downpour, covering every inch of turf; nourishing every one of his teammates, making good teammates look great. Frank Lampard and John Terry became great players under José Mourinho - they owe almost as much to Makelele.

And now Makelele reaches the end of his career. Fans will miss him, though less than they would a flawed fantasist. PSG, however, will miss him terribly, just as Chelsea and Real Madrid continue to miss him. Makelele has indeed been a rare player. He has bent the sport to his will, or rather to suit his gifts and limitations. He has fulfilled his role with such expertise that he now defines it; Makelele has convinced the world that every team needs not a "water-carrier", but a "Makelele".

Makelele has always been an obvious, yet remarkable player. Obviously, yet remarkably, he remains by far the best "Makelele" we have seen.

Latest: DSK - Blanc

Fabien Barthez has rushed to defend his former France teammate Laurent Blanc:
'Laurent Blanc is not a racist. He does, however, enjoy dressing up as a chamber maid.'

Emmanuel Petit also backs Blanc:
'If - and I mean if - Laurent was in DSK's bedroom... I'm sure his intentions were innocent.'

News Flash

The DSK saga took a highly unexpected turn last night when it was alleged that the Guinean hotel maid who fell prey to Dirty Dom's advances was, in fact, a blacked-up Laurent Blanc. A New York-based sports news website claims to have received details of Blanc's involvement from an anonymous source, known only as Long Throw-in. The website,, published secretly captured footage of Blanc modelling a series of different pinafores as French football's top brass - including Fernand Duchaussoy and François Blaquart - looks on.

According to Long Throw-in, Blanc and his co-conspirators hatched their plan in a bid to manufacture a story big enough to eclipse the recent scandal regarding racial quotas for academy players in France. Calls for Blanc's resignation will be amplified if it can be proven that he channelled a comic tradition which even Ron Atkinson might deem "a bit much".

Hit refresh for minute by minute updates on this story.

samedi 14 mai 2011

Waiting for Gourcuff

An empty stadium. A football.

Puel, sitting in the centre-circle, is trying to remove his football boot.
Enter Aulas.

Puel: Nothing to be won.

Aulas: You may have a point.

Puel: Not lately.

Aulas: Might I inquire how His Gaffership spent the last ninety minutes?

Puel: On a bench.

Aulas: Did they beat you?

Puel: Certainly they beat us. Four-nil.

Aulas: The same mediocre lot as usual?

Puel: Auxerre.

Aulas: When I think of all those seasons in the Champions League. We were respectable then.

Puel resumes battle with his football boot. Seeing this, Aulas removes his own boot and gives it to Puel.

Puel: It was only a matter of time.

vendredi 6 mai 2011

For Further Consideration

Morgan Amalfitano
Kevin Gameiro is the razor sharp point of Lorient's attack, but it's Amalfitano who provides the thrust. The 26-year old frequently reigns over Ligue 1 matches from first minute to last. Premier League opponents would be rather less (sym)pathetic. Still, a player guaranteed to draw appreciative applause for his touch, vision and passing.

Moussa Sow is Ligue 1's top-scorer; Eden Hazard its brightest prospect. Arguably, however, the third member of Lille's fearsome attacking trio, Gervinho, has been the league leader's MVP this season. He's scored 14 goals and directly created nine. Quick and tricky, he can play as a right winger or up front. Lille paid just 6.5 million euros for Gervinho in 2009 - they'll expect double that should he be sold this summer.

mardi 3 mai 2011

The Case of the Missing Maestro

The toe of Puel's left shoe beat the floor. His hands were clasped together - each policing the other. Marlowe watched and waited for him to uncoil.

'He was a real good boy, real talented. Came to work for me six months ago. Soon as he arrived, I knew something was up - say, you got a drink?' Marlowe had anticipated the question. Five seconds later, Puel was necking Bourbon like it was going out of fashion. But when would Bourbon go out of fashion? Same day as gambling, whoring and a guy tearing hell out of his buddy over a broad.

'This kid had it all. The hacks called him the new Zidane for Christ's sake. Aulas - that's the boss - laid out twenty-five million for him. Gave him the fattest contract I ever saw - I mean crazy money.'

'So what happened?'

'What happened? Nothing happened. The boss wanted fireworks and he got a fifty cent lighter. The kid's lost it, his confidence, everything - and Aulas blames me.' The kilowatts of nervous energy had travelled from Puel's feet to his hands, which clung desperately to his skull. Marlowe wondered when Puel's hair had begun to fall out. Six months previous, he figured.

'What exactly do you want me to do, Mr Puel?'

Puel bit down on his bottom lip and slowly shook his head. Marlowe counted as the second hand of his watch marched past five, ten, fifteen... He had met a thousand guys like Puel. Pawns in someone else's chess game: Puel could go forward or back or maybe diagonally if he got lucky - at the expense of another lousy pawn.

'I want you to find out what's eating the kid. I want Aulas off my back.' Now desperate didn't come close.

'I'll help you, Mr Puel. I'll need all the information you have on the kid. First, his name.'

'Yoann Gourcuff.'

jeudi 28 avril 2011

For Your Consideration

For summer bargains, Premiership clubs need look no further than Ligue 1.

Mamadou Sakho
Gargantuan PSG centre back who's tough, quick and has excellent positional sense. Brings an assurance to Kombouaré's team which belies his youth: Sakho may be a little raw but at just 21 he has time - as well as the ability - to develop into one of Europe's best defenders.

Kevin Gameiro
Thanks to a first-rate scouting network and an astute coach (Christian Gourcuff), Lorient have been able to dig-up, polish, then flog a series of rough diamonds. Most recently, Laurent Koscielny joined the Merlus from Ligue 2 side Tours before switching to Arsenal. Next in line is striker Kevin Gameiro who's bagged 18 goals in 30 league starts this season - having scored 17 last term. Gameiro is slight but fast and tricky, and - for my money - represents a better bet than his principal rival for the golden boot Moussa Sow.

Eden Hazard
Vast reserves of primary resources have been sacrificed in a bid to describe Hazard, in print and online. The hype will have driven up his price tag but - in the grotesque world of football - there are worse ways to blow £20 million.

Yann M'Vila
Hasn't had a spectacular season but one suspects that's how he likes it. The Rennes midfielder has put his elephantine lungs to consistent good use for club and country, displaying remarkable maturity given that his (holding) role is typically reserved for players ten years his senior.

mardi 26 avril 2011

Q: What do Lille and Kylie Minogue have in common?

  • Lille have lead Ligue 1 since January, but doubts persist about their championship credentials.
  • Lille are still top, but Marseille have just two points fewer and a game in hand.
  • Lille remain the most fluent team in Ligue 1, but have won none of their last three league matches.
  • Lille can call on the league's most talented attacking player, Eden Hazard, but he's only scored six goals all season.
  • Lille also boast France's best defender, Adil Rami, but his form has been patchy since he injured his shoulder on international duty against Croatia.
  • Lille's Mickael Landreau and Florent Balmont have both won Ligue 1 (with Nantes and Lyon respectively), but the club itself hasn't won a French title since 1954.
  • Lille's remaining fixture list is fairly sympathetic, but does include home and away matches against fourth-placed PSG.
  • Lille expect to build on this season whatever its outcome, but will have to do so without Rami who has already signed for Valencia.
  • Lille may hold on to their other star performers (Hazard, Moussa Sow and Gervinho), but are equally likely to lose one or two of that trio this summer.

A: Enduring but(t)s.

jeudi 14 avril 2011

French Football Lookalikes

World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit = Olympic gold medallist Sally Gunnell

Lille and Ivory Coast forward Gervinho = Super Freak Rick James

Darren Tulett, Canal Plus' resident Brit = Comedian Paul O'Grady

Raymond Domenech in his prime = Singer-songwriter Jim Croce

Domenech as France boss = Bert from Sesame Street

Marseille and France star Mathieu Valbuena = Ernie from Sesame Street

Arsenal's Samir Nasri = The Eternally Glorious Kim Jong-il

French Class

In England, the nineties gave voice to beta fan: a breed of middle class, university-educated, emotionally developed, family orientated men and women who quite like football but recognise - for the sake of good taste - that it's only a game. Beta fan has always existed, but couldn't previously be heard over the din created by alpha fan.

The Emirates Stadium is beta fan's Mecca. A Gunner, Nick Hornby, was the first to map beta fan's genetic code. If beta fan were to share a half-bottle of Waitrose GOC with any contemporary manager, it would be Arsène Wenger (make that Riesling). Beta fan's favourite player? The supremely urbane Thierry Henry.

The rise of beta fan is associated not only with Arsenal, but with the French. Wenger, Henry, Vieira, Petit, Ginola and Cantona have been totemic figures in an evolutionary period punctuated by the dual triumphs of les Bleus. Indeed, the France sides that won World Cup '98 and Euro 2000 might have been expressly selected to appeal to beta fan. Recall how mature and cerebral the likes of Lizarazu, Dugarry and Thuram appeared in comparison with, say, Gary Neville.

Whatever the gentrifying influence of French managers and players on the sport in England, football in France is - to this day - the domain of alpha fan. Why? The primary reason is financial. Ticket prices are kept in check by the mediocrity of Ligue 1. Central Paris is relentlessly bourgeois and ludicrously expensive, yet entry to the Parc des Princes costs as little as 12 Euros. Well-to-do Parisians steer clear, often professing vague allegiance to a glamorous foreign club (Barçelona or Arsenal) rather than PSG, which is left to the banlieusards, the city's underclass.

As an unashamed beta fan, I'm comfortable with my demographic's increased prominence in England, which extends from top-flight stadiums to the sports pages of every broadsheet newspaper. That said, 105 minutes spent in the Paris or Auteuil stand of the Parc is a refreshingly unreconstructed experience. There, alpha fan is alive and well. Pity about the catering.

lundi 11 avril 2011

The Lingo (Part 3)

Hygiène de vie douteuse
Not specifically a football expression but one often associated with footballers. The translation "suspect life hygiene" isn't particularly elegant but you get the idea. Boozing, womanising, gambling and brawling are - in France as they are elsewhere - the classic threats to a player's hygiène de vie.

mardi 29 mars 2011

The Differences Between Blanc and Capello or: Why France Could Win Euro 2012

The suits at Lancaster Gate must be envious of their French counterparts. Since his tenure with les Bleus began, Laurent Blanc has conducted himself in precisely the manner it was hoped Fabio Capello would as manager of England. It mustn't be forgotten, however, that Blanc has held the role for a mere seven months; after which period Capello had enjoyed comparable success and was justifiably revered as the England team's latest great hope. Indeed, there are similarities in the way both men sought to quickly impose a fresh sense of discipline on their respective squads, and strong parallels can be drawn regarding the quality of the players at their disposal. Given a botched Euro 2012, Blanc would doubtless become as unpopular as Capello now appears to be.

For all the common ground mentioned above, there is at least as much that separates the two managers. It can be argued quite legitimately that Capello has nothing to lose at this stage of his career: his success in Milan and Madrid has long since assured a golden legacy. Sections of the British press would interpret his failure as confirmation that managing England is the "Impossible Job", and that English footballers are simply too ignorant to comprehend the demands of a sophisticated foreign coach. By contrast, Blanc is new to management. He overachieved in each of his three seasons at Bordeaux and drew admiring glances from a number of more prestigious European clubs. The fickleness of football - or of the people who run it - means that his hard-earned reputation won't remain in stasis. It's a truism that managers are often helpless participants in a game of snakes and ladders: a snake would lead Blanc to a long-term let in purgatory (with Raymond Domenech next door), while a ladder could lead to Old Trafford or the Bernabéu.

The fact that France have won trophies in recent memory heaps even greater pressure on Blanc. Although Domenech contrived to dramatically lower expectations, the French still expect more than we England fans who - let's face it - would be delighted with progression to the semi-final of a major tournament. For better or worse, Blanc will forever be emblematic of France's triumphs in 1998 and 2000. Anything less than a place in the last four of next summer's European Championship and Blanc will sense his medals turning into a noose. Of course, Blanc will find that being a national hero has its advantages. He is adored by the public and unanimously respected by a group of players who can vividly recall images of le Président in action on the pitch; who could forget the tender moments he shared with Fabien Barthez? Blanc has experienced first hand the life of a modern footballer: like Capello, he is a disciplinarian, but his image is that of a cool older brother as opposed to Grumpy Grandpa Fabio (or Weird Uncle Raymond).

The rapport Blanc enjoys with his squad should prove key to France's future performance. In his inaugural season at Lyon, Yoann Gourcuff has been a shadow of the player he was under Blanc at Bordeaux. If Gourcuff looks forward to international duty as a respite from his travails in Ligue 1, he's not alone. Whereas representing England is plainly an unwelcome distraction for many of Capello's charges; the likes of Gourcuff, Benzema and Ribéry are less satisfied with - and less engrossed in - life at their clubs and are therefore more likely to prioritise their sojourns with the national team.

The negativity and feuding that characterised Domenech's reign has been expunged. Blanc has enlisted a dynamic and sympathetic staff, including fellow World Cup winner Alain Boghossian as his number two (it was he who travelled to Manchester to patch things up with Patrice Evra) and Barthez in the unofficial capacity of training ground jester/assistant goalkeeping coach. Communication is among the new watchwords of the French setup. On that note, Capello would concede that Blanc was astute to generate a minumum of fuss over his choice of captain; uncontroversially, he plumped for monolithic midfielder Alou Diarra. Although Diarra's starting berth is no longer assured, Blanc's discretion and his warm relationship with the player in question (another Bordeaux man) should guard against disharmony if the armband is reassigned.

Add to all that the fact that Blanc is French and is paid a fraction of Capello's salary (approximately £1 million per year to Capello's £6 million), and two corrosive aspects of the Capello conundrum are instantly negated. Nonetheless, if France do ultimately surpass England, it would be wrong to blame Capello; and equally misguided to criticise the FA for employing him. It's lunacy to suggest that Capello is an inferior coach to Blanc. That said, while Capello remains the best of an adequate bunch of candidates, Blanc is exactly the right manager at exactly the right time for France.

jeudi 24 mars 2011

Ribéry's Return

France Football reports that Laurent Blanc travelled to Munich last week to clear the air with Franck Ribéry ahead of his recall to the France squad.

FiFiR can reveal that the seeds of this controversial rapprochement were, in fact, sown several months ago when Ribéry wrote to Blanc and Fernand Duchaussoy (the president of the FFF) in the hope of expiditing his return to international football.

Below is a full, translated transcript of Ribéry's letter.

Esteemed Sirs,
In circumstances such as these, one reflects with fresh insight on Alexander Pope's celebrated line, 'To err is human, to forgive divine.' During recent, sleepless nights, I have been moved to revisit Pope's Essay on Criticism in its entirety, and have found therein some small justification for my actions in Knysna. I humbly submit to you my thoughts on a series of relevant extracts from that magnificent, enduring work.

But of the two, less dang'rous is th'Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense

In South Africa, an ancient land of boundless variegation and energy, a malign force did indeed tire our patience; and also sought to mislead our collective sense. Was I to stand by, silent as the hopes of my nation were extinguished by the incompetence of a single man? Preposterous! I do concede, however, that the method of my protest was misjudged. Again, I defer to Pope:

A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

I do not doubt that, given time, Domenech would have been exposed by his own gargantuan idiocy, but I must insist on the urgency of our plight. My comrades and I could ill afford to temporise. Witlessly, we adopted a course of action instinctive to all Frenchmen: the strike. Pope was right to urge caution against cliché:

And ten words oft creep in one dull line:
While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,

Refusing to train was our gravest error; we ought first to have exercised our bodies, then our minds and perhaps - in the spirit of the Scriblerus Club - penned a satirical essay as an antidote to Domenech's pedantry. Alas, our powers of reason were temporarily tainted.

Today, hindsight casts an unsparing light on the sorry debacle which I have addressed. I pray that you find within yourselves the wisdom to comprehend my folly, which was provoked by haste and an undying conviction that ignorance shall not prevail.

Most respectfully yours,

F. Ribéry

vendredi 18 mars 2011

Big, Big Week

Disappointed Didier.

The past week has been the most significant of the season for French clubs. Last Friday, Marseille beat Rennes with an ominously confident and coherent performance. On Saturday, Lyon were equally impressive away to Sochaux. Messrs. Deschamps and Puel had cause to be optimistic as their teams rose to within a point of Lille. The following day, les Dogues and fellow title hopefuls PSG faced stern tests of nerve against, respectively, Valenciennes and Montpellier. Lille won and now have 52 points; three more than Rennes, four more than Marseille and Lyon. PSG drew having relinquished a two goal lead; on 45 points, their hope is fading.

Midweek, if Dechamps' optimism was dented at the hands of Man United, Puel's must have been obliterated by Real Madrid. Lyon were simply shredded in the second half. The headline of L'Equipe on Thursday morning was unequivocal: Fin!

France did, however, still have a representative in the Europa League. Not any more. PSG managed an admirable 1-1 draw away against Benfica but that wasn't enough to counterbalance a 1-2 defeat in the first leg.

This period of intense interest continues into the coming weekend. Lille travel to Brest; third placed Lyon face second placed Rennes; and Marseille slug it out with PSG in round two of le Clasico. Europe may be finished: Ligue 1 is just getting started.

lundi 14 mars 2011

Christian and Adriana Karembeu Split

They never saw eye to eye.

It's official: Adriana Karembeu - Wonderbra model, former medical student and an improbably awful dancer - has put her 1.26 metre legs to decisive use by walking out on husband Christian. Adriana told Paris Match, "I could no longer bear the existence we lead... We no longer had the life of a couple."

Christian Karambeu is a man apart. In a prior interview with France Football, he spoke about the humanitarian work that requires him to be in almost constant transit: "I'll stop when I'm in a coffin!" It seems Christian's desire to make a positive difference in his native New Caledonia (and beyond) has wrought a negative impact on his domestic life.

Adriana and Christian married in 1998, the year in which Christian was a member of France's World Cup winning squad. As the couple's stardom grew, both embraced a number of political and charitable causes. Adriana continues to act as an ambassador for the Red Cross, while Christian principally lends his support to issues regarding ecology and poverty in the South Pacific.

Simultaneous to their incessant do-gooding, Christian won the Champions League twice (at Real Madrid in 1998 and 2000) as well as Euro 2000 and the World Cup; in 2006, Adriana was elected world's sexiest woman by the esteemed readers of FHM France and recently competed in Danse avec les stars.

FiFiR is sad to learn of the Karembeus' separation and will gladly buy Christian a consolatory pint or provide Adriana with a refreshingly egoistic shoulder to cry on should she need one.

jeudi 10 mars 2011

The Lingo (Part 2)

Du Caviar
In Britain, we talk occasionally of "champagne football". Champagne is regarded by many in France as a staple, which doesn't do justice to the magnificence of a team like Barcelona. In response to a sublime passage of play, the French swoon instead, 'Oh-la-la! C'est du caviar!' Similarly, champagne socialists - of which there are huge numbers here - are known as la gauche caviar.

Another nod to the brilliant legacy of Latin American players, specifically Ramón Unzaga Azla (who was born in Spain but made his name Chile). In 1914, Unzaga Azla executed the first recorded bicycle kick in a competitive match. Une Chilienne might also be called, simply, une bicyclette.

The Lingo (Part 1)

Coup du chapeau
19th century sportsmen celebrated their exploits with restraint, by doffing their hats to the crowd. In Britain, this "hat trick" typically involved a flat cap; in France, a beret.

Twice a year, the strongest members of the flock migrate north in search of a more fertile environment. Le Mercato is the French term for the transfer window.

Coup du sombrero
An obvious homage to the countless Latin Americans who have illuminated French football, this term denotes the act of flicking the ball over an opponent's head and retaining control. We should be sad that no concise English translation exists.

Petit Pont
Literally a 'little bridge', but in this context a nutmeg. For the record, nutmeg - the stuff that goes in an apple crumble - is muscade in French.

mardi 8 mars 2011

An Introduction to French Football Terminology

In any language, discussion of football is characterised by cliché, hyperbole and a tacit agreement that the conventions of grammar - particularly regarding tense - do not apply. Football is indeed "a great leveler": a subject which can render the intelligent and the stupid equally inarticulate.

The growing rabble of former players splayed across sofas at Sky, the BBC and ITV seems set on perpetuating such inanity. Thankfully, French football broadcasting is more heterogeneous: the experts who appear on Canal Football Club and Téléfoot to dissect Ligue 1 include print journalists, managers, chairmen and - invariably - World Cup winners. Thus, France's most successful football programmes offer broader insights, which are exchanged without bias and in an atmosphere of polite discord.

This enlightenment rarely extends to the terraces. At Marseille's Stade Véoldrome, one expects to overhear statements as ludicrously myopic as those Sir Alex Ferguson might make if he deigned to talk at all. Marseille fans, however, do not have access to the same vast range of empty maxims about - for example - "playing between the lines" as their English-speaking counterparts.

My intention to write an article about football clichés in France has been thwarted. Good. Instead, I have decided to compile a dictionary of the charming, idiomatic phrases used to describe the skills, people and general paraphernalia of French football.

mardi 1 mars 2011

5 Observations about PSG

Makelele is a liability
The man who defined the role of the modern holding midfielder, Claude Makelele, retains his uncanny knack of defusing attacks. Nonetheless, his distribution - once so reliable - has become a cause for anxiety. This is perhaps indirect testament to the quality of Makelele's former Real, Chelsea and France teammates: a true holding midfielder functions best in conjunction with other more technically adept and creative players. At Chelsea, Makelele would win the ball and typically pass it short to Lampard or Essien. At PSG, both the positional sense and athleticism of his teammates are inferior. Thus, Makelele is called upon to execute passes of greater ambition or to advance with the ball at his feet. Too often, he loses possession.

As successive England managers have found, instructing a conventional central midfielder to play "like Makelele" risks turning that player into a dead weight or, worse, a liability. It seems that the opposite is also true.

But Giuly's still got it
When Ludovic Giuly captained Monaco to the Champions League final in 2004, he was rightly touted as one of the most exciting players in Europe. A transfer to Barcelona promptly followed. Now 34, Giuly is back in Ligue 1 and a firm favourite among the faithful of the Parc des Princes. Although his influence has wained, he's still quick, tricky and combative. Whereas at Monaco he operated as the right-hand prong of a front three (scoring 47 goals in 187 matches), he's now a touchline-hugging winger (in either a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1). The Guardian's Daniel Taylor recently wrote of Ryan Giggs: 'the boy who played football like a man, has become the man who plays football like a boy.' In the Autumn of his career, Giuly exhibits an equally infectious joie de vivre each time he takes to the pitch.

PSG need a new striker
Last season, Mevlüt Erding scored 15 goals in 31 matches for PSG. The season before last, Guillaume Hoarau scored 17 in 33. Both have proved themselves capable of making an impression against even the most resolute of Ligue 1's defences. Yet, this season they have netted a combined total of just 13 times in 47 matches. PSG coach Antoine Kombouaré is entitled to demand more from his first-choice strikers, who must be thankful that Nenê's purple patch has so far yielded another 13 goals. If PSG are to become perennial championship contenders, they will require significantly more firepower.

Christope Jallet is vastly underrated

Jallet: shipshape.

Much has been made of the partnership forged by centre backs Sylvain Armand and Mamadou Sakho. The former has excelled throughout his seventh season with PSG, achieving the highest average performance rating (awarded by L'Equipe) of any defender in France. The latter, still only 21, has drawn admiring glances from many of the continent's biggest clubs. It would be easy to overlook the slight figure who lines up to the right of Armand and Sakho, were it not for his tenacity and quality on the ball. Those who champion Christophe Jallet compare him to Ashley Cole (although the Chelsea man plays on the opposite flank). Like Cole, he provides his team with a formidable attacking outlet: he may not be quite as athletic but Jallet is undoubtedly a more accomplished crosser than Cole.

PSG must work had to hold on to Armand, Sakho and Jallet.

PSG are only marginally better than Sunderland
On a good day, when every key player is available, PSG are an attractive, well-balanced team. The back four are highly competent, Clément Chantôme endows the midfield with stability while Nenê and Giuly add skill and intelligence. On a good day, PSG would beat Sunderland.

Stéphane Sessegnon left PSG for Sunderland in part because of a tiff with Kombouaré but also, he has stated, in search of a better standard of football. The transfer was greeted by a certain amount of derision in France, given that PSG are currently fourth and have progressed to the last 16 of the Europa League. Sunderland are eighth in the Premiership and, of course, are not involved in Europe. That said, I believe that the Back Cats would give PSG a sreious run for their money. It is not unrealistic to suggest that the fourth best team in France is comparable to the eighth best in England and - by the same token - that the best team in France (Lille) is comparable to the fifth best in England (Chelsea). Indeed, such a formula might be a little generous towards Ligue 1.

Sod the Louvre

Love football but can't afford Premier League ticket prices? Fancy a Parisian mini-break but tired of all those bloody art galleries and monuments? Enjoy passive smoking marijuana in the company of chavs? Then why not take a trip to the Parc des Princes? Tickets for all PSG's remaining home matches cost just 12 euros with a 'TousPSG' membership card. Better still, at the Parc, every night is ladies' night: female spectators pay nothing!

jeudi 24 février 2011

Souness a Visionary of Violence

They don't make 'em like that anymore.

The incident that evoked it may be old news, but I'm still distracted by Graeme Souness' comment to the effect that if Joe Jordan and Reno Gattuso were locked in a room together, one of the pair - Gattuso - would leave on a stretcher. I think Souness is onto something. That said, I'd suggest that he's underestimated the potential popularity of such a spectacle. Why stop at a single bout? I propose a series of fights, featuring various niche divisions, to be held in summers without a World Cup or European Championship to entertain us. Divisions might include Dreadlocked Dutch Middleweights, Welterweight Full-backs Called Paul and Lightweight New Maradonas. Since the eureka moment belonged to Souness, he should officiate, resplendent in a black and white striped shirt (rather like fellow Scot John Anderson on Gladiators).

The event would be invitational, so who should receive the call? Well, Jordan and Gattuso are in, and presumably Steven Gerrard would fancy a crack at the 'pussycat' Gattuso. These three are - to greater and lesser degrees - Genuine Football Hardmen (a catch weight division and the most prestigious) and there are numerous players past and present to whom that tag is so persistently attached that they, of course, would merit an invitation: Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Diego Simeone, Big Dunc Ferguson, Andoni Goekoetxea... and all those guys from the seventies with nicknames that sound like the titles of slasher movies.

In the spirit of WWF/WWE, the gory stuff would be interspersed with some light relief in the shape of, say, a G. on P. Neville carve-up. Or perhaps a clash of the preening Frenchmen: David Ginola and Laurent Robert circling, each imploring the other, "Pas le visage!" Better still, picture Karen Brady pummelling Richard Keys with a very postmodern rolling pin.

The world of sport is changing. Cricket, rugby and even snooker are experimenting with sexy new formats. If football refuses to adapt, it could well go the way of skittles and Penny Farthing time trials. We can no longer afford to ignore the oracle that is Graeme Souness.

mardi 8 février 2011


A match report with a difference in homage to French novelist Georges Perec.

This story is of a match won. A galaxy of stars on display for both host and visitor. Initial indications of an away victory. A wing-back had flown from Catalunya with a will to attack. Sagna and Rami anxious.

But Blanc's boys found a foothold. Gourcuff and Madrid's pup linking sharply, visitor Pato continuing to show his abundant gifts. Caught by this spirit too was Lucas. That said, Lloris was not in action, which might account for his poor kicking.

Frankly, though its samba-cancan rhythm was brisk, this show had no punch. A high foot just prior to halfway through did it. A gold shirt back on its hook, navy shirts off it. And soon, logically, a goal! Unhappy in Spain's capital, Karim was back on form last night, scoring thanks to first-class work from a Roman forward.

On a pitch by now awful, Hulk out to no avail. Sons of Gaul dominant until Mr. Stark's final blow. Auxiliary points? David Luiz was solid, as was Roma's Phil.

vendredi 21 janvier 2011

A Day in the Remarkable Life of Eric Cantona*

I detest alarm clocks. They are agents of conformity. My day begins at the whim of the birds. I may have a meeting at 9am, which I will miss if the birds do not beckon me from slumber. My contract with the Cosmos acknowledges this possibility. Equally, I am often visited by pigeons or a solitary sparrow at six o'clock, as the sun is rising. I ask, 'Why have you woken me? There is nothing I must do today.' The birds' response is always the same: 'Eric, today, you must live.'

I detest showers. Does the lion shower? Does the mighty polar bear shower? No, instead I bathe in rain water. In Manchester, I could bathe every day; in Provence, once a week. Here in New York, I have a penthouse with guttering which channels directly to my bathroom. Truly, it is magnificent.

Each morning, I drink at least six cups of black coffee. I detest milk. It is the very essence of blandness. As a new-born infant, I would recoil from my mother's teet, and reach instead for a small red beaker of pastis. When I think of that beaker, I weep.

For me, no two days are the same. If I look at the mirror and see a painter, I will paint. If I see a poet, I will write poetry. Several times, I have seen an armadillo. Those were black days.

My creativity knows no bounds. I have recently written a sonnet about Steve Bruce (a beautiful man) and a comic opera based on the life of Catherine the Great.

My role with the Cosmos will not interfere with my artistic output. On the contrary, I see myself not only as Director of Soccer but also as Artistic Director. In both capacities, I will shun convention: Cantona is an auteur. That is not to say that I am incapable of learning from others. I intend to establish an ambience that draws on both Manchester United's Carrington training ground and The Factory, where Warhol cultivated the talent of mon frère d'une autre mère Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others.

Of course, I do not compare myself to visionaries such as Ferguson or Warhol - nor to great footballers like Pele or Zidane. I see myself as a force unrestricted by métier, a modern Da Vinci. The question is not, 'What is Cantona?' The question is, 'What is Cantona not?' Or perhaps, 'What is not Cantona?'

I have a passion for lunch. My favourite dish is cassoulet; a stew with duck, goose or pork, and beans. Not your baked beans. I detest baked beans. They taste of the degradation of the human spirit. At lunch, I drink wine and toast my good fortune and that of all who have been touched by Cantona.

Afterwards I study my reflection once more. Perhaps now I see an actor and so I must act. I stay a while in front of the mirror and recite Molière or practice my impression of Des Lynam. It is getting quite good.

I will spend tea-time with my players, just as Sir Alex did with me. Here in New York, however, we will drink "java" (black, of course). I will endeavour to make every single one of my little cosmonauts feel like a million dollars. That, incidentally, is my daily wage.

My passion for dinner is even more intense than my passion for lunch. I have made love to dinner; I have stared at dinner, not daring to violate it; I have eaten dinner.

The evening is my most violently creative period. In December 1992, after an exhausting yet invigorating match for Leeds against Sheffield Wednesday, I returned home and immediately fell into a trance. 36 hours later, I regained consciousness to find a portrait of Gary McAllister daubed in blood on my living room wall. Whose blood it was, I have no idea. In the evening, it is simply impossible to resist the impulses that drive me.

And finally to bed, the theatre of dreams. I dream of art, I dream of Phil Neville and always I dream of the red beaker.

*As I like to imagine it.

mardi 18 janvier 2011

Paris's Black Sheep

Despite its youth and a relatively meagre haul of silverware, Paris Saint-Germain FC is regarded as one of the great institutions of European football. The capital's other club, the imaginatively named Paris Football Club, was established in 1969 - a year before PSG - but was quickly eclipsed by its precocious sibling. While PSG has grown into a slick, commercial enterprise, Paris FC has roundly failed to fulfill the ambition of its founders.

In the two decades after 1945, Paris became something of a football hotbed: Red Star, Olympique de Paris, Racing Club de Paris, CASG and Stade Français all competed among France's elite. Ultimately, such abundance proved unsustainable as playing talent and public enthusiasm (and thus revenues) were diluted to the extent that by the end of the sixties, no Parisian team remained in the top flight. In a bid to rectify the situation, a dynamic group of industrialists and administrators conceived Paris Football Club. Their aim was to publicise the benefits of physical exercise and provide a boon to civic pride by uniting the city's erstwhile football enthusiasts under a single, dominant banner.

At the same time, negotiations were underway to merge Racing Club with the smaller Stade Saint-Germain. Crucially, the plan was backed by the mayor's office, which also volunteered a loan to the fledgling, which was christened Paris Saint-Germain. PSG would be based in the suburbs: the authorities were less enthusiastic about Paris FC's intention to reside at the Stade Charléty, just a stone's throw from the celebrated Rive Gauche.

So began the difficult relationship between PSG and Paris FC. Like so many sibling rivalries, it was rooted in the accusation of favouritism. PSG had been cast as favourite, consigning Paris FC to the role of the black sheep. Regrettably, as the clubs' respective fortunes have diverged, enmity has given way to indifference.

While PSG today lie second in Ligue 1, Paris FC are hidden in the depths of France's third division, National. Coach Jean-Marc Pilorget cites promotion to Ligue 2 within the next three years as his objective. Modest this may be, but the potential development of Paris FC seems decidedly limited given that attendance to matches throughout France has fallen dramatically in recent seasons - nowhere moreso than at the Parc des Princes, home of PSG.

Still, for romantics, there is an innocence inherent in Paris FC's perennial struggle to escape anonymity. It's surely appropriate that a football club located so close to Paris's literary heart embodies the darker aspects of the human condition, besides the fleeting joy of triumph. In the course of a season, fans of Paris FC can expect to experience joy, anger, disappointment and ennui in equal measure. I'll wager that Sartre would have found more of merit in that than in the happier tale of PSG.

lundi 17 janvier 2011

Rugby. That's R-U-G-B-Y

Mathieu Bastareaud: pretty in pink.

Last night I went to watch a rugby match. Dear reader, such is the misery I am prepared to endure on your behalf. For those of you who didn't go to public schools and don't come from Wales, rugby is a variant of football, designed specifically for the obese. It involves a ball and some kicking, but the ball isn't spherical and is mostly carried. In rugby, there's no such thing as 'hand ball'. Rugby players do tackle but, again, they use their hands - or anything other than their feet.

I'm an open-minded fellow and was keen to sample the atmosphere of the Stade Charléty, permanent home to Paris Football Club* and occasional stomping ground for Stade Français. Since tickets to last night's match versus Leeds Carnegie were available for 5 Euros, I decided to partake.

In fact, the experience wasn't wholly nauseating. I saw plenty of tries and a satisfying amount of violence, all in what marketing people like to describe as a "carnival atmosphere". Stade Français is a club renowned for its efforts to make rugby "sexy" (those marketing people again), which explains the appalling selection of pop music and a kit so garish, it makes 90s goalkeeper jerseys seem tastefully restrained. After the final whistle, as the pink-clad macho men left the field to the strains of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive', I was reminded that Stade Français is responsible for the Dieux du Stade calendar, which is a favourite among Paris's gay community.

So there you have it. Rugby: baffling, brutal and camp as Christmas.

*More to follow on Paris Football Club.

mardi 11 janvier 2011

Transfer Targets: Sylvain Marveaux

Sylvain Marveaux was a guest of Liverpool at their match against Wolves on December 29th. Remarkably, he wasn't put off. An attacking midfielder who normally plays on the left-wing for Rennes, Marveaux bagged an impressive ten goals last season. Although that form took him to the periphery of Raymond Domenech's World Cup Squad, he wasn't selected and has so far been overlooked by new boss Laurent Blanc. Marveaux might not be fans' dream signing, but his pace and creativity would be a definite asset to the current Liverpool side.

lundi 10 janvier 2011

Transfer Targets: Gueïda Fofana

Gérard Houllier has made no secret of his desire to bring teenage sensation Gueïda Fofana to Villa Park. Fofana captained France to victory at last year's Under 19 European Championship and is unanimously recognised as one of the most exciting prospects in French football. This lad can pass, tackle and carries the ball with the same authority as Patrick Vieira in his pomp. Houllier will face stiff competition from several Ligue 1 clubs - as well as the usual suspects in Spain and Italy - if he attempts to prise Fofana from Ligue 2 side Le Havre.

dimanche 9 janvier 2011

Transfer Targets: Stéphane Sessègnon

PSG's Stéphane Sessègnon is a skillful and dynamic midfielder, often compared to former Parc favourite Jay-Jay Okocha. Signed from Le Mans by Paul Le Guen, Sessègnon was a revelation in his debut season (08-09) with the Parisian club. After an equally impressive second season, his ascent has been checked by injury and a spat with Le Guen's successor, Antoine Kombouaré. The antipathy between player and manager came to a head last week when Sessègnon refused to travel to PSG's training camp in Marrakech. Desperate to leave France, he's an avowed fan of the Premier League and has the attributes to be extremely effective among the English top flight's middle class: Aston Villa, Newcastle and Everton are competing for his signature.

Transfer Targets: Moussa Sow

Lille and Senegal striker Moussa Sow is the league's leading marksman with 14 goals in 18 matches. He's quick, powerful and - currently - clinical. Dig deeper, however, and the stats are less impressive. Sow has scored more goals since summer than in the past two seasons combined. He's young (just 24) and will continue to improve, so should perhaps be judged on present form rather than what's gone before. That said, few French pundits believe he has sufficient quality to make a long-term impression on Ligue 1, let alone the Premiership. Like Hazard, Sow has primarily been linked with Liverpool.

Transfer Targets: Eden Hazard

The marvellously monickered Eden Hazard - who turned 19 this week - has amassed 15 caps for Belgium and been a regular at Lille since 2008, typically playing on the right-wing. Combative despite his size (1.71m/66kg) and blessed with exceptional balance, Hazard is by no means a prolific goal-scorer but can be relied upon to create chances, as his teammate Moussa Sow will testify. Strongly linked with a move to Liverpool, Hazard is also high on Arsène Wenger's wish list and has been eager in recent months to express his admiration for Arsenal. Hazard is undoubtedly the sort of player Wenger likes; whether he's the sort of player Wenger needs is open to question.