French Soccer Prediction: Singing Les Bleus
This week your correspondent reports from Paris, cruising the banks of the Seine in pursuit of a handicapping edge. I picked up a copy of France Football -- which, it must be said, is the single greatest soccer publication in existence. In any country. In any language. Fifty colour pages of articles, tables, charts, graphs . . . and, unbelievably, it comes out daily. France Football is not easy to find on the other side of the pond, but if you’re even remotely interested in soccer it’s well worth tracking down an issue. And no, I’m not on their payroll (although a free subscription would be nice).
A cursory flip through the local papers reveals that the French remain preoccupied with the national team. A less than respectable Euro 2004 finish resulted in the sacking of coach Jacques Santini, who is now enjoying a solid start to the Premiership season with Tottenham Hotspur. The new manager, Raymond Domenech, is being hailed as nothing less than the messiah. In a culture obsessed with personalities, Domenech’s face is ubiquitous. Journalists and talk show hosts gush endlessly over the man.
But France’s fortunes will only get worse before they get better. Quarterback Zinedine Zidane has quit international duty, and team mates Lilian Thuram, Bixente Lizerazu and Marcel Desailly have opted to join him. The Gallic dynasty of the past six years has come to an end. As if to confirm it, France could only hold Israel to a 0-0 draw in their World Cup qualifier on Saturday. They face the mighty Faroe Islands this week and French fans will accept nothing less than a blowout against the islanders. But make no mistake. If France are presently in a rebuilding phase, expect them to bounce back soon. This country’s talent pool is neck deep, with one of the strongest player development programs in the world. Although it may take some time, once they adapt to a midfield sans Zidane, France will be back to their winning ways.
Another striking feature is the amount of English Premier League coverage in the French press. Since the vast majority of France’s internationals play in England, the French love to follow the Premiership. It comes as no surprise, then, that Arsenal is among the most popular teams in the country. Coached by Arsene Wenger, and with a roster including names like Henry, Vieira and Pires -- to name just three of Arsenal’s several Frenchmen -- it’s easy to justify the number of Gunners jerseys on the streets of Paris.
The fact is, the French league does not rank among the strongest leagues in Europe. Because it’s not as widely televised as the English, Spanish, Italian and even German leagues, the French league lacks vital ad revenue and, therefore, financial muscle. Financial weakness means that top French league players are poached just after they begin showing signs of excellence. Just this past summer, the likes of Didier Drogba, Djibril Cisse and Ludovic Giuly fled to the big European clubs after stellar performances last season. But the French league appears to be improving rapidly. After impressive runs to the latter stages of the Champions League by teams like Monaco and Lyon, people are beginning to pay attention. One immediate solution to improve the quality of French soccer would be to shrink the league to fifteen teams from the current twenty. Dropping the weakest teams would create more parity and, consequently, more respect from outside observers. In any case, we can only expect the quality of the French game to improve in the coming years.
One lesson the French can teach the rest of Europe is this: quit while you’re ahead. Manchester United’s 1990s superstar Eric Cantona created shockwaves by retiring seemingly prematurely. Since then, Cantona has become a self-styled ‘philosopher’, film actor and now an abstract photographer. His photography is currently on display in a Paris exhibition. Regardless of how absurd this may seem, it’s a testament that French players have a healthier approach to the game. Many players in England and Italy, who know nothing else in life but soccer, continue playing well into their 30s and 40s and fade away in obscure teams and leagues. Others turn to alcohol and drugs to fill the void. French players know it’s just a game and, as a result, are better prepared to move on when their soccer careers are over.