French football is in a mess
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Not heard so much about Clairefontaine lately, have we? Can you remember when France won the World Cup in 1998? Then the same players went out and won the European Championships two years later. Oh, there was plenty about Clairefontaine in those days. England had to have one, if you recall. Had to build one straight away or never be world champions again.
The Clairefontaine academy took on mystical significance. This factory where France groomed and trained its stars of the future. No matter that Zinedine Zidane did not come through it and that, without him, France would have won zip. No matter that, in 2002, France were only marginally less of a waste of space than they were at this World Cup.
The English are the magpies of world football, so as soon as an idea works elsewhere they wish to steal it – hence the Italian manager – so it was only natural that when France enjoyed success, the Football Association would seek to pilfer the concept of a national football academy and construct their own.
They proved too incompetent to get the project off the ground but, while the National Football Centre at Burton-on-Trent remains a work in progress, a valuable lesson has subsequently been learned. You can teach football, but character is down to the man.
The country that spawned a generation of beautiful technical players through Clairefontaine, has now produced a new one of spoiled babies. It turns out the quality of the pupils counts, as much as the school. A stellar group came along and, through them, France excelled, yet the best player was not the product of an academy but a Marseilles slum. It happens like that sometimes. Manchester United have a fine youth system, but the era when Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Phil Neville arrived almost at once was exceptional. There has been no repeat since.
France have been in decline for years now; in three of their last five tournaments they have departed without winning a game. They needed a play-off and a goal so controversial it led to calls for the rules of the sport to be changed to even reach South Africa. It is no surprise that they are on the first plane home – in economy and disgrace – but the fall-out has been spectacular.
Strikes, fights, sackings, resignations; France truly led the field as the basket case of this World Cup. They were, from an English perspective, its saving grace. Every time the mood around Fabio Capello's camp sank too low, they could at least point at France and say, 'Well, at least we're not them.'
For England have tried at this tournament, however ordinary the outcome. That is why the sight of France was shocking. To see a collection of players so disengaged and lethargic was exceptional. Whatever contempt they felt for their coach, Raymond Domenech, and his staff, one presumed professional pride would be a stronger motivation.
Instead, France behaved like rotters. And when you have a team full of rotters, all the years spent honing skill becomes irrelevant. We look for reasons for success but often the explanation is simple. Franz Beckenbauer said of the greatest Dutch team, "We heard about total football, but there was no such thing. It was just 11 great players. And by the time you realised there was no magical plan, they had scored two goals."