By Soccer America Magazine executive editor Mike Woitalla in Indianapolis.
© Soccer America
French national team coach Roger Lemerre broke his silence and reflected on his team's Euro 2000 win, the key to successful coaching and his nation's soccer history.
Roger Lemerre pointed his finger at my chest and stabbed it toward me as he said, "Vous! Vous!" "You! You! Are very lucky," said the French national team coach, with the wide grin he reserves for his most emphatic statements. He was answering a somewhat rhetorical question about how he felt about the media.
"The only reason I am giving you an interview," he said, "is because I am obligated by my contract with adidas. I do not give interviews in France. Not to the press. Not to TV. I only do what I am absolutely required to do - such as postgame press conferences."
But at the NSCAA Convention in Indianapolis in January, seven months after he lifted the European Championship trophy, Lemerre was granting time to American journalists.
For two years running, France Football has bestowed on Lemerre the "Le Prix Citron," the "bitter award," for his media blackout. Lemerre's distaste for the press grew out of the 1998 World Cup, when he assisted Aime Jacquet, who was harshly criticized while guiding France to its first World Cup title. Sports daily L'Equipe apologized publicly to Jacquet after France's 3-0 win over Brazil in the final.
"I am trying to accomplish goals with my team," Lemerre said, "and the way to do that is not to talk about it, but to get on with it. In this business, if you talk to the press, you end up talking about your friends, and the words are going to be distorted. You have to protect your friends."
He does not, however, restrict his players from media contact. He makes it clear that they shouldn't discuss internal problems.
"That stays in the family," he says.
After France won the World Cup, the victorious players decided they wanted to stay together and make history - to become the first world champion to lift the European Championship two years later.
"I felt that we had to be better offensively," Lemerre says, "and everything we did for two years was to improve offensively, while winning.
"It is very important to know what is more important - improving your game or winning. The answer is both. You don't feed yourself with losses. You feed yourself with victories."
France lost only once in between the tournaments - 3-2 in qualifying to Russia - but it didn't qualify until the last day, when David Trezeguet came off the bench to provide the clincher in a 3-2 win over Iceland.
At the Euro finals, Lemerre had an impressive frontline corps to choose from. He juggled his talents - Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Christophe Dugarry, Nicolas Anelka, Sylvain Wiltord and Trezeguet - with aplomb.
In the final against Italy, he subbed Wiltord, Trezeguet and Pires into the game in the second half. Wiltord supplied a stoppage-time equalizer; Trezeguet nailed the golden goal off a feed from Pires.
But asked to detail how he orchestrated the title win, Lemerre says, "I didn't do anything special. I just did my job. Credit belongs to the institution, which is the federation."
My colleague Paul Gardner insists that France was lucky at Euro 2000. Lemerre rises in his chair - again, the grin appears - and he says that even if Raul made the penalty kick in the quarterfinals, "It would only have been tied, and we could have still won!"
The penalty kick against Portugal? Lemerre jumps up, and mimics Abel Xavier's handball, "TV proved it! And if it hadn't have been called, we had still time to score."
And the last-ditch equalizer against Italy?
"We are aware of the statistics that prove most goals are in the last five minutes, and we prepare our players to go the whole game."
"Statistics are knowledge," Lemerre says. "Imagination is better than knowledge, but you cannot have imagination without knowledge.
"A painter must first learn the different colors, then he can paint whatever he wants."
No Overnight Success
Lemerre stresses that French success hasn't come overnight.
"We reached the World Cup semifinals in 1958," he says, "when we lost to Brazil. We were always in the top 20 but not able to get into the top 10."
A key to the recent titles was the export of talent - Frenchmen honing their skills in England, Spain, Germany and Italy - and the soccer academies that were created starting in the early 1970s, when the French federation took over the responsibilities of player development.
"The federation wanted to control what was done," Lemerre says. "It mandated that all the First Division clubs create training centers for the youth - and eventually Second Division clubs. The federation set everything - curriculum, structure - and coaches had to be federation-licensed."
"The federation gets its power from the Ministry of Sport," he says, "and the pro league gets its power from the federation, so the pro league does what the federation wants. And they get grants from the government for the centers."
Lemerre sees no danger in setting a rigid curriculum:
"Coaches have different personalities, so coaching will still be different and each player has his own special quality. They receive the same coaching, but they remain different players."
French players have always been creative. When the federation determined that they must improve physically, the creativity didn't suffer:
"If coaching education kills creativity it is a disaster. If you take away liberty, the player loses right away. You need to be organized and you need to give the players' structure, but once the game starts, it's up to the players' imagination.
"You don't tell Zinedine Zidane, 'Run left, run right, pass left, pass right.' You give a player a structure, but in order to win, the player has to go beyond it. Lilian Thuram is a right back, but if he didn't go beyond that role and score twice in the semifinal against Croatia, France would not be world champion."
At age 32, Lemerre captained Nancy, which had in its squad a 17-year-old named Michel Platini.
"I was responsible for him," Lemerre says. "I was to take him under my wing, and make sure he was doing his schoolwork. ... He was very intelligent, but preferred playing soccer to studying."
Lemerre played 414 league games and earned six caps for France.
"When I was growing up, I was a center forward," he says. "The older I got, the farther back I moved."
He played sweeper and right back, then in 1975 turned to coaching. He won two French Cups before becoming a federation coach in 1986 and led the French military team to the 1995 world title.
When he credits the federation for France's titles, he refers to off-field measures taken during tournaments.
"We learned after Euro '96, for instance, how important it is for players to have time with their families," he said. "We know that players today must have laptops and Internet access because the modern player has personal business to keep up with. We added medical staff, because when we only had three, players were up too late waiting for treatment."
Of course, there's a personal touch:
"A coach has to like his players and his players have to feel that they're liked."