A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Laurent Blanc won’t have struggled to find the words to describe what he felt before Wednesday’s friendly between France and Brazil in Paris. This was as classic an example of déjà-vu if ever there was one.
Thirteen years ago, he had been in the exact same position awaiting the start of the World Cup final on July 8, 1998. And much like last night Blanc was forced to sit on the bench.
Back then he had scandalously been banned from playing the final against Brazil in one of football’s great injustices. Blanc received the first red card of his career in the previous round for a non-existent coming together with Croatia’s Slaven Bilić. It was a travesty.
“I didn’t experience it like any old spectator because I had the chance to follow it from the bench and not in the stands like the rules indicated,” Blanc told France Football. “Frankly I prepared myself as if I were going to play that final. I remember playing at being a journalist in the Stade de France and trying to get Brazil’s starting line up. I had to occupy myself to pass the time and believe me the time didn’t pass very quickly.”
Rather than take pity on himself, Blanc reported for training to the surprise of Aimé Jacquet, sat in the same seat on the team bus and wore his No 5 shirt on the bench even in the knowledge that he hadn’t a chance of playing the final. He understood that the collective came before the individual.
If Blanc hadn’t given it consideration before, he now really thought in earnest about becoming a coach. “Yes, I already was one then,” Blanc said.
Memories of 1998 came flooding back last night. The hope that they would have a restorative effect on les Bleus wasn’t lacking among the supporters. Last summer’s events in South Africa represented a nadir in French football history – above all, when it came to the theme of national togetherness.
The Black, Blanc and Beur element – held up as 1998's great social legacy – had been ripped to shreds in South African squabbles. “We have seen France’s real face,” Nicolas Anelka claimed: “Franck Ribéry hits Yoann Gourcuff. Gourcuff, the good Frenchman, Ribéry the Muslim.”
Even six months on, the after-effects of the strike in Knysna are still being felt. Indeed, Patrice Evra’s international future is the very definition of a political football, with France’s Minister of Sport Chantal Jouanno recommending that he never play for the country again after “sullying” its name.
Sixty two percent of fans polled by France Football before the announcement of Blanc’s latest squad were against Evra’s call-up, even though the Manchester United left-back had completed a five-match ban for the role he played in South Africa. Amidst great speculation, Blanc eventually chose not to include him, insisting that the decision had been taken “purely for sporting reasons.”
That matter was laid to rest, at least for now, and the prospect of playing Brazil meant a sunny disposition prevailed at Clairefontaine. Signs that the inheritance of `98 wasn’t lost on the current generation were plentiful. As for the Black, Blanc and Beur component no greater advert for its revival could come than in the bond formed by France’s two centre-backs Philippe Mexès and Adil Rami.
Interviewed jointly in L’Équipe on Tuesday, their bonhomie leapt off the page. “We’re not married,” Mexès blushed. Rami on the other hand felt absolutely no shame at the bromance. “We sleep in the same châteaux, that’s enough…” he joked.
Contrary to the impression given, France were taking the encounter seriously, although loyalties were split within the group. Guillaume Hoarau, the Paris Saint-Germain striker, revealed how he had been wearing a Brazil shirt on the day of the ’98 final “but quickly took it off when France scored.” Cultural ties also made it a special game for Chelsea’s Florent Malouda. “I am Brazilian,” he told Le Parisien.
“My wife is from Brazil, my children are half-Brazilian… When I was little, I dreamed of playing in Brazil for a Brazilian club. Having grown up in Guyana, France was far away and I thought I had more chance of success over there.”
Speaking of success, France’s record against Brazil is remarkable. Les Bleus haven’t lost to the Samba kings since August 26, 1992, when Raí, the city’s future darling inspired a 2-0 victory at the Parc des Princes. Blanc still erred on the side of caution, however, and paid customary respect to his opponent.
“Each decade an extraordinary generation comes out of Brazil. It’s for this reason that there are five stars on their shirt… Brazil are in reconstruction because they have young players, but they are practically the best in their positions. In the team that will start there’ll be one from Inter, one from Barcelona, another from Milan….”
But that’s not to say of course that there wasn’t a palpable air of cautious optimism blowing through the French camp. December’s hugely impressive dismantling of England at Wembley left no illusions as to the potential of this side. It was also France’s fourth win on the bounce under Blanc.
The key word here was continuity, though there was a sense that a two-month hiatus and the absences of both Samir Nasri and Mathieu Valbuena might well knock les Bleus off their rhythm.
“We will stick with the same philosophy,” Blanc said. Indeed, not much would change aside from the new kit launched by Nike with the slogan: “Our differences unite us.”
The team-sheet once again made for familiar reading with Hugo Lloris wearing a red mime outfit in goal, the lovers Mexès and Rami in defence, Alou Diarra named as captain for a fourth time, and Karim Benzema brooding menacingly up front.
A second chance was afforded to richly talented Roma playmaker Jérémy Menez on the right-hand side of France’s 4-2-3-1 formation. His nerves had got the better of him in the 1-0 defeat to Belarus last September and he had lost his place in the squad. The 23-year-old wouldn’t let Blanc down this time.
Before the match Zinedine Zidane had offered France’s players some advice. After all, he had masterminded defeats of Brazil in 1998 and 2006. “Each time I talk about Brazil, I have a good memory,” Zidane told L’Équipe.
“The fact that I have also been on holiday there has an impact on my relationship with the country. I was always afraid. I asked myself how they would welcome me. And what’s funny is that they welcomed a Brazilian footballer. French, but Brazilian… They didn’t have any resentment.”
The secret to beating Brazil, according to Zizou, is that they don’t like to be provoked. “You have to rattle them,” he said.
Uncharacteristically for a team without Felipe Melo, it was Brazil who did most of the needling. The pitch was in a sorry state after the Six Nations match between France and Scotland four days earlier and initially didn’t appear to lend itself particularly well to slick passing.
Mano Menezes side had much of the early possession and managed to eek out chances for Milan duo Alexandre Pato and Robinho. But the Seleção looked cluttered and ungainly. France, meanwhile, seemed to carry the greater threat.
Hernanes’s sending off in the 40th minute for a ‘De Jong’ style challenge on Benzema swung the game greatly in France’s favour and to their credit they took advantage.
The breakthrough came shortly after the interval when Menez turned two Brazilians inside out down the right flank and then played a perfect ball across the box. Benzema lay in wait to score his third goal in a row for France.
The 23-year-old had been a little wasteful, notably in the first half when he didn’t supply the finish Yoann Gourcuff’s wonderful reverse pass thoroughly deserved. But once again Benzema showed the swagger that was a hallmark of his play two and a half seasons ago when he struck 27 times for Lyon. He looked dangerous with each touch of the ball.
It was yet another return to form under Blanc, not just for his No 1 striker, but also for Mexès, the man of the match, and for the team as a whole. “I liked what I saw… There were many positives this evening,” Blanc said.
France’s prestigious 1-0 victory extends their winning streak to five games, a feat les Bleus haven’t achieved since 2007. And though thousands of fans didn’t line the Champs-Elysées to savour this triumph over Brazil as they famously did in 1998, there is a definite sense, as evoked in L’Équipe’s headline this morning, that things are getting “better and better."
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