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Jack: Despised French deliver final-round knockout punch

Kristian Jack
11/19/2013 5:36:02 PM
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The World Champions of pessimism.

That's what the outstanding journalist Simon Kuper calls the French. He'd know, he has lived amongst them for over 10 years.

Kuper, writer of all things good, said last year in a piece for the Financial Times that schooling in the country was one of the key reasons for the country's negativity. 

Early childhood here is mostly happy, but then French schools seem to make people miserable for life. I first glimpsed this when my wife and I went to a parent-teacher meeting. It was the only one we were granted all year, so we were itching to hear about our daughter's triumphs. This teacher saw her job solely as pointing out shortcomings. That's pretty much the essence of French schooling, notes Peter Gumbel in his shocking book On achève bien les écoliers (They Shoot School Kids, Don't They?). French pupils, Gumbel explains, are almost never praised and frequently told they are worthless.

Gumbel has not written a book on the state of the current French football team but if he chose to he could use the same description of their players.

Since losing 2-0 in Ukraine last Friday, France's national footballers had been taken out to the schoolyard and given a good hiding by the media and the public. 

L'Equipe started Friday with the front page headline 'Everyone is behind Les Blues,' but after a loss in Kiev, the country were not behind them at all. A poll taken by Le Parisien revealed 83.6 per cent felt France would not qualify for Brazil 2014. The 2-0 deficit played a part, but overall it reflected the general feeling the people of France had towards their national team. The French public had had enough. 

It is not hard to sympathize with them. Since getting to the World Cup final in 2006, France were pathetic at Euro 2008 and disgraced at the World Cup in 2010, failing to win a match at both tournaments. The players revolted against then coach Raymond Domenech and when Laurent Blanc took over, the 23 players in South Africa were disregarded for the first game, with some, such as Patrice Evra and Franck Ribery, suspended by their own football federation for their behaviour. 

Blanc steadied the ship for a while, but when they lost a crucial match at Euro 2012 against Sweden, he admitted the camp had issues inside the dressing room: "It kicked off because all the players felt that everyone hadn't given everything."

France's loss meant they faced Spain, who would easily beat them in the quarter finals, and negative tactics coupled with poor behaviour towards the country's media saw them exit in disgrace again. This time Blanc had had enough. France were again a national time divided. 

In 2013, it is harder than ever to get true unity with a national team. More than ever, players ply their trades for clubs away from their home country. They are individuals linked by nothing more than a passport and that is certainly the way France have played in qualifying for the World Cup.

They started the campaign as the team no seed wanted to face, the 10th-best side in Europe according to the world rankings, and the moment they got Spain, they looked like a team stuck in third gear waiting for the playoffs. A smaller European group denied them a chance to climb the rankings, appearing once again in a draw unseeded. They were the team no seeded team wanted to face, once again. Ukraine were the unlucky ones, we were told.

Yet, in the first leg France were predictably poor. A team lacking leadership who lost the plot when down a goal. Ukraine no longer believed they were worth fearing and France looked like a team who knew what the rest of Europe didn't - they were not as good as people thought.

"Someone who is a starter at Real Madrid, can't be as bad as that?" harshly asked French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet earlier in qualifying but, in truth, he was right. Many of the French players looked nothing like those who played for their clubs.

"Bravery! More Bravery!' screamed L'Equipe's headline last weekend. 

And so with the nation angry with their national team once again, Didier Deschamps' team had one last chance to get them back. A packed house at the Stade de France certainly didn't reflect the mood of the nation, getting behind their team from the moment the national anthem sung. Five changes were made to the French team that lost in Ukraine and everyone of them made a difference.

In Mathieu Valbuena, France had vision and desire to attack in the final third, to push Ukraine deep and force their defenders to give away unnecessary fouls. In the 22nd minute, the Marseille man sent in a brilliant free kick that Ribery got on the end of and his powerful shot rebounded out to Mamadou Sakho to score his first international goal. Sakho, like Benzema, was one of the five changes made by Deschamps, and the Real Madrid man made it 2-0 soon after when he took the ball, which bounced off Valbuena, and into his path, to slot home. Stade de France erupted and the linesman, crucially, kept his flag down despite the striker being way offside. It was difficult to feel sorry for Ukraine, however, as five minutes earlier Benzema had a legitimate goal ruled out for offside. 

In 34 minutes, France had gotten back on level terms. Except, it wasn't. The archaic away goals rule that UEFA continues to adopt in these qualifiers meant France were on edge throughout.

Brave was indeed the word of the day as Yohan Cabaye, another one of the famous five, led a brilliant resolute French side at 2-0, popping up in key areas to make crucial interceptions and tackles. Ukraine, down to 10 men after the dismissal of Yevhen Khacheridi, knew one goal would be enough.

At 2-0, France still had it all to do, yet it was at these nervous times when they looked their most mature. They looked like a side that felt they would score, but knew the importance of not conceding. The goal would come, they felt, and come it did. From a second phase of a corner, Mathieu Debuchy's cross wasn't dealt with by Ukraine's defence and when Ribery's strike came across goal it was knocked into his own net by Oleg Gusev.

Deschamps, the former skipper who lifted the World Cup in that very stadium fifteen years ago, once stood for everything that was great in French football. Now, he stood powerless. He would kick and head every ball from the sideline for the next 20 minutes until the final whistle put him and his country out of their misery. 

Deschamps was lifted into the air by his players and coaching staff and hundreds of Tricolour flags flew inside the stadium. France had found themselves and a performance many didn't know they had left in them. 

The French may be pessimistic, but they are just as passionate.

Tonight, the world champions of pessimism can love their national team once again.




Golfer Taylor Pendrith is the highest ranked player on Canada's men's national team. The recent graduate of Kent State University is 18th on the world amateur rankings. More...

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