“A country was once a feared and respected world power, obliterating any other country it came up against. Its aristocracy and sheer style were the envy of the civilised world, holding court in the most grandiose of locations, and all one could do was look on and marvel from afar, reflecting bitterly on how they could have it so good; truly, it was their golden age…”
In 1998, France had the best players in the world. They were simply unbeatable, and a joy to watch; rarely was a national team blessed with such a crop of talent, all playing in their prime.
Winning the World Cup in 1998 as hosts at the newly-built Stade de France was only the beginning; the team would go on to win Euro 2000, and the Confederations Cup in 2001 and 2003.
“Yet, like so many before it, the establishment eventually came crashing down. Arrogance was rife, and bitter feuding broke out among the last of the decadent generation, who would come to see themselves as above the law. Inevitably, they were toppled by those they had trampled underfoot for so very long, until exile and executions brought an end to the dynasty once and for all…”
It didn’t last. Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head butt in 2000, in his last ever international, was in itself an omen, and the side failed to win a competition after 2003, but just how badly things had degenerated in the French camp was only truly visible once the run-up to this year’s World Cup began. They struggled against teams they would have expected to destroy in qualifying, eventually scraping through to a play-off against Ireland, and only managing to get through that by cheating: Thierry Henry’s slight-of-hand.
Having made it to South Africa, things only got worse; fighting, strikes and abysmal performances culminated in the team being knocked out with one point gained, and one goal scored. Manager Raymond Domenech was sacked. Nicholas Anelka was banned for 18 games, Patrice Evra for 5, Franck Ribéry for 3, and Jeremy Toulalan for 1.
“The revolution began. Power was given back to the people, and they chose as their leader a hero of old, who drafted a constitution granting dissolution of powers from those who had once wielded them so recklessly. Order was re-established, and a new system put in place. The door was also left open to those dissidents who might yet consider their future under the new regime. Forces were then amassed to do battle with the old enemy, and victory was achieved on their foreign shores for the first time in nearly a thousand years. Thus, the revolutionaries had their mandate, the people had their pride, and the nation could, once again, look to the future with hope, and leave their past behind …”
Laurent Blanc, stalwart of the all-conquering 1998 side, made it his priority to establish order, drafting a code of conduct which every player had to sign. Among other things, the players are now forbidden to strike or fight, they must always eat together when at a tournament, and they must all sing the national anthem.
The side which so easily schooled England at Wembley last night is still awaiting the return of some of its stars, although France managed quite easily to show just what a changed side they are, and they really did look impressive. The only way now, is up.
As for England, all we managed to achieve last night was to do the French a huge favour; we’ve given Blanc’s team the rubber-stamp result they needed to move forward, and now we can’t even take comfort from the fact that as bad as we have it, the French have it worse.
That excuse has gone. It’s an old story.
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