France made a miserable first-round exit at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, finishing bottom of their group with only one point to their name. Laurent Blanc was appointed head coach in a bid to restore their ailing fortunes and push them back up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where they currently languish in 19th place.
A prominent figure in the world-beating class of 1998, Le Président, as Blanc is known in French footballing circles, is growing in authority in a post he has held for seven months now. In that time he has steered his team to the top of their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying group, an encouraging sign of progress that Les Bleus will attempt to build on when they face Brazil in a friendly at the Stade de France on Wednesday.
Fresh from announcing his squad for that mouth-watering meeting, Blanc spoke at length to FIFA.com about his latest team selection, his coaching philosophy and the highlights of his brief but promising reign so far.
FIFA.com: Laurent, let’s start by talking about your 23-man list for the Brazil game and the surprise selection of Laurent Koscielny.
Laurent Blanc: He’s a player we’ve been keeping an eye on since the start of the season and his transfer to Arsenal. He’s at one of the biggest clubs in Europe now and having seen his performances there we felt it was time to bring him into the team and let him get a feel of things. He’s still young, and it was only three seasons ago that he was playing for Tours in the Championnat National (the third tier in France). He’s come through so quickly, and according to Arsene Wenger he’s got the potential to get even better. He’s definitely one for the future and the more I see him play, the more I’m impressed by his intelligence, vision and ability to bring the ball out of defence.
There aren’t really any other surprises in the squad and you’ve stuck with a few players who are out of form.
I wanted to send a strong signal to some of them, and the message is simple: 'We know you’re not at your best right now but we’re in the process of rebuilding and we need you. If that helps you get back the confidence you need to rediscover your best form, then you can count on our support.’ And let’s be honest, since our last game last November (a 2-1 win in England), there have not been many uncapped players who’ve stood out from the crowd and hit top form. It’s only understandable then that I’ve named more or less the same squad.
When you were appointed to the job you said you didn’t know how long it would take to rebuild the side. Are you any closer to knowing how long the process might last?
It depends on the players. They have the answers to the questions everyone’s asking, and I hope they’ll be providing those answers pretty quickly. They’ve already given us a few, which is encouraging.
Taking on Brazil is always a big test, even in a friendly. Do you think your team is ready?
Of course. That goes without saying. It’s a game we have to play and that’s that. For me, Brazil’s the home of football and they’ve produced so many talented players over the years. We don’t get that many chances to play against them, either in friendlies or in the World Cup. The players are well aware that this is a unique opportunity, and my guess is that there were a lot more French players waiting on the announcement of the squad than usual. Taking on one of the top two teams in the world in front of our own fans could help the team grow in confidence.
This is an altogether different test to the physical one you faced against England last November.
The Brazilians like to keep the ball, which is the kind of game we want to play. It’ll be interesting to see if we can do that and put them under some pressure. It won’t be easy, but the amazing thing about football is that anything can happen in a one-off match.
Unlike a lot of defenders turned coaches, you preach an attacking game. Why is that?
Listen, more than anything else I’m trying to strike a balance. I’m not mad, you know. But it’s true that I like my team to have the ball, dictate the game and score goals. I like to see players pushing forward as a unit. It makes the game more enjoyable to play, and to watch as well, doesn’t it? We’re very ambitious but we always need to keep that objective in mind. I’ve got several talented young players at my disposal and I know what they’re capable of. My only regret is that we don’t really have the time to work on that together and to make progress.
Which match has given you the most satisfaction since you took over?
It has to be the game in Bosnia-Herzegovina (a 2-0 win in the UEFA EURO 2012 qualification competition), which came on the back of a big setback against Belarus at the Stade de France a few days earlier. Admittedly we didn’t play that well but nor did our opponents. The get-together we had before the match was great though, and the players really wanted to show they could do a lot better. I was delighted to see my team show some character, and we came back well and dominated long periods of the game. We were able to impose ourselves.
France are well placed in their EURO 2012 qualifying group and it would be a surprise if you didn’t go on and qualify. What can you do to ensure things go to plan?
We’ve still got some difficult matches left and we’ll have some tough moments along the way. When you’re rebuilding, things don’t always go the way you want. That’s why we need to make the most of the Brazil game and keep on progressing and building our confidence for the match against Luxembourg on 25 March. Our most disappointing performance of the last six months came in our first game against them. We really were very average and I haven’t forgotten that.
What in your opinion does a coach’s job entail?
I do this job to get my experience across and share it with the players, to give them the benefit of it. As a coach I know very well that you don’t often get that much back, but even if they only give me a little bit then that’s more than enough for me.
Can you give us a few words on Karim Benzema, a player you’ve continued to show faith in.
Although he’s still young, Karim is the top scorer in this France team at the moment. If other strikers were pressing for a place right now I might consider them, but that isn’t the case. He’s tremendously talented but he hasn’t fulfilled his potential yet. It’s up to my staff and me to do what needs to be done, to give him the best support so he can show just what he’s capable of.
What do you think of the current France U-20 team, who are reigning European champions and will be taking on the world in Colombia this summer?
They are a very fine generation and we’re watching the performances of some of the players very closely. A few have already joined big foreign teams but they’re not getting that many games, which is a problem. The French FA and I are going to keep close tabs on them and try to support them in the decisions they make. I hope they’ll all be playing more before too long.
Finally, the Brazil game in Paris is a replay of the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final, a game you missed through suspension. What memories do you have of that night?
Good ones because it was still a World Cup final and France won. Football’s a team sport and the most important thing is that the team wins, not whether a certain player is taking part or not.