Everything you need to know about the shebang in South Africa
Let’s start with an easy question: is Raymond Domenech bonkers?
Most of us – on the evidence of his allegedly astrological approach to team selection, the way he sometimes seems to be smiling at a private joke while havoc reigns on the pitch in front of him, and the fact that his reaction to national disaster at Euro 2008 was to propose live on TV to his girlfriend – would probably conclude that he is, as they say in the north country, as barmy as a sack of badgers.
But let’s ask a trickier question: even if Domenech is bonkers, does that mean he is always wrong? The answer to which is err, actually, no.
Domenech is the man of the tournament; the eye of a hurricane that will only abate when les bleus are knocked out; the grassy knoll around which countless conspiracy theories rage; the theatrical student who has inspired one of the World Cup’s greatest melodramatic farces, a production which pundit Jean-Michel Larque, only partially motivated by a desire to promote his new book on France’s outgoing coach, says le foot will take years to recover from.
Domenech’s infamy back home is such, Larque suggests, that some amateur players have given up the game. Surely, if they’re that easily swayed, French football is better off without them?
And yet in the matter of Domenech v Henry, I agree with the coach. Henry’s internal exile to the bench seemed to be the spark that ignited the discontent that has simmered among the players throughout Domenech’s reign. And Henry’s omission has baffled many British pundits who subscribe to Alan Hansen’s theory that “form is temporary, class is permanent”.
The ugly truth is that class isn’t permanent – not in the competitive sense. Even great players decline. And the evidence of Henry’s decline is stark. His major contribution to France’s qualifying campaign was to give journalists, pundits and commentators grounds to indulge in a frankly inexcusable number of “helping hand” gags.
Last season, Henry started 19 games for Barcelona – he featured in nine others as a sub – scored four goals and racked up 12 assists. In 319 minutes in the UEFA Champions League, Henry couldn’t score, but then he only had one shot on goal.
Although publicly Pep Guardiola defended Henry, by February the French striker was behind Iniesta, Pedro and Bojan in the team selection. In March, the Barcelona coach warned Henry in public: “I need him to have the same ambition that made him the best over many years.” The striker tried to deflect talk that his legs were gone by blaming knee injuries but it was, as Guardiola hinted, his spirit that troubled many supporters at Camp Nou.
Karim Benzema – like poor excluded Robert Pires – is a Scorpio and didn’t make Domenech’s squad. With Benzema out (and out of form), not taking France’s record goalscorer to this World Cup would have been politically impossible but, given free rein, Domenech might have wanted to be so bold. And that may, actually, have been the right move.
It’s not as if we haven’t been here before. When he’s out of sorts, Henry can lower morale faster than a British Airways boss. In 2006/07, Henry was the sulky underperforming skipper in a dysfunctional Arsenal side that finished 21 points behind champions Manchester United.
In 2010, his marginalisation seems (and we can’t be certain because the unravelling of this French squad is, like Rashomon, a tale that differs dramatically according to the identity of the teller) to have been a catalyst for insurrection, revolution and hissy fits.
With the anarchy in the French camp, I wouldn’t be surprised if Henry plays tonight. The team against Mexico smacked of desperate political compromise: Yoann Gourcuff, arguably the best creator in the team, omitted so that Franck Ribery could not just play in the hole but disappear into it.
For all the good he’s done for football in a long and memorable career, I hope Henry scores a hat-trick against South Africa. And then does himself and France a huge favour by announcing his retirement from international football.
Until then I would suggest Henry consider the words of the great Italian striker Luigi Riva who is still revered for his courage, skill and discretion: “In a World Cup, the greatest are those who can go on the bench without breathing a word”.
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