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!