Laurent Blanc wanted France to become more like Spain but in fact they’re turning into the Dutch. Just as Holland’s woeful Euro 2012 campaign was characterised by in-fighting behind the scenes, so the delicate balance of the French players’ relationship with its public, and each other, tipped after Sweden ended the team’s 23-match unbeaten run.
L’Equipe reported on Thursday of squabbles in the dressing-room after France’s defeat in their final Group D match left them in second place and set to face Spain, rather than Italy, in the quarter-finals. According to the paper, it went like this: Alou Diarra criticised his team-mates for not showing enough motivation and spirit in the defeat. Samir Nasri took offence and told him to be more polite.
Meanwhile, Hatem Ben Arfa was furious that he had been taken off after 60 minutes and started using his phone. Coach Laurent Blanc told him not to call his family from inside the dressing-room, whereupon Ben Arfa criticised the coach for the substitution and said, “There were other players out there worse than me.” That wound up Nasri as well, as he thought it was directed at him. Ben Arfa then challenged Blanc to send him home if he wasn’t happy with him (cue Thursday’s French phone-in shows all over-loaded with callers urging Blanc to send him home. So much for Ben Arfa’s new-found Zen).
“It got heated, but we all cooled down afterwards,” Blanc confirmed at a press conference yesterday. “It can be constructive. It shows there’s a reaction and a bit of electricity. I hope we’ll see that against Spain on Saturday.” Florent Malouda, who was part of France’s squad at the disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign (which broke down two years ago to the day), admitted that seeing the in-fighting “awoke some demons in me.”
It’s hardly the ideal preparation, days before facing world and European champions Spain, to have the same old stories about France’s problems at major tournaments rehashed once again. (And the question has to be asked: who is the mole in the France dressing-room? And is he the same one who leaked the Anelka-Domenech row in South Africa?)
The one positive, though, is that it has distracted attention from France’s sub-par performance against Sweden. Instead, now all anyone is talking about it the latest row behind the scenes, and whether this will develop into Knysna II. There are three aspects of this story that Blanc needs to resolve if France are to have any chance against Spain in the quarter-final:
1.Where are the leaders?
This was seen as one of France’s issues pre-tournament and it was apparent on the pitch against Sweden. Hugo Lloris may be captain (and the only player to come out of the game with any credit) but he is the goalkeeper, and quiet with it. Philippe Mexes could have been, but showed his game-intelligence with a foul 70 yards from his goal that brought a yellow card and a suspension against Spain. Diarra has emerged as one of the more outspoken and charismatic players in the group, but he doesn’t command the respect of others as he doesn’t play abroad, which brings it own kudos. It’s okay to have no leaders in the middle of a 23-match unbeaten run: but it’s during that loss, and especially after it, that you need them to emerge.
“Do we have someone who can be the coach’s reflection on the pitch like we had in 1998? No,” said Laurent Blanc of France’s leadership crisis. “I wish I had someone who could analyse the game and decide what to do straightaway.” One player who has come out of the Sweden game well is Yohan Cabaye, who was injured and missed greatly in midfield.
He has suddenly become very important to this France team, and Blanc has earmarked him as that type of player in the future. “Maybe one day Cabaye will be able to have the necessary qualities analyse things quickly and then pass them along. He has the profile. But for now, he can’t do it. Cabaye, he sees everything before anyone, but he is very new to playing at the top level.” For now, though, that dearth is harming the group.
2.The ‘1987 Generation’ need to sort themselves out.
It seems astonishing now to think that Laurent Blanc started a pre-tournament friendly against Serbia with Karim Benzema playing behind Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez. All four (as well as Blaise
Matuidi) are part of the much-lauded generation of players born in 1987 who helped France win the Under-17 European Championship in 2004. But where there is trouble, one of this lot is normally not far behind and it’s well-known in French football circles that Benzema, Nasri and Ben Arfa do not get on.
“We are a strong group but we have yet to gain experience,” said Nasri before his goal against England last week. “It is still too early to make us leaders. The experienced players like Franck [Ribery], Flo [Malouda] and Alou [Diarra] who played the World Cup final in 2006, will give us the benefit of their experience here. Having talent is good, but it’s not enough. You cannot buy experience!” Or it would seem, good behaviour. Nasri and Benzema were accused of causing trouble at Euro 2008 as well, but claimed that events two years later proved their innocence. It would appear that it only proved they are not the only ones who can rock the boat. As one French journalist put it: “They are tired of always being compared to each other a part of the so-called ‘87 generation. They also all have huge egos but no leadership ability, no charisma, and that’s quite obvious on the pitch.”
3.Has Samir Nasri run out of chances?
This was meant to be the tournament that turned Nasri into the star of this team. At Euro 2008, he made two substitute appearances (the second one, he was subbed off 15 minutes later to make way as Eric Abidal had been sent off) and since then, he has played at Arsenal, where he was a regular in the Champions League, and has won the Premier League title with Manchester City. “My profile has changed: I am mentally tougher, I manage situations better and I can handle the pressure better, playing in such a big competition,” he told France Football.
He did score France’s first goal of the Euros, a fine strike in a Man of the Match performance against England, but as I explained in this article, that was overshadowed by his goal celebration directed at French journalists. He will have no doubt spotted that today’s poll in L’Equipe asks: should Nasri even start the game against Spain on Saturday?
Benzema was not happy that Nasri dwelt on the ball for too long against Sweden, slowing down attacks, and Menez or Valbuena might be better suited to the counter-attacking style that France are likely to adopt against Spain. “We need to play a little like the Spanish,’ said Blanc. “For the moment, Nasri does not really have a Spanish accent,” countered L’Equipe. “It’s up to him to show that he is not affected by the critics,” said assistant coach Alain Boghossian. “He is strong enough mentally to cope.”
Blanc has a tough go ahead of him.