When Laurent Blanc took charge of France a year ago, it is fair to say he had a substantial rebuilding job on his hands. He faced the task of resolving a crisis, restoring the team’s reputation and securing qualification for a major tournament. A great deal has changed in 12 months, and Les Bleus are now back to winning ways and playing good football to boot. It is a turnaround that has Blanc’s name stamped all over it.
Blanc has never shirked a challenge, and has garnered a reputation as a winner. After a glittering playing career that included multiple French, European and world titles, a move into management seemed the next logical step for the man known as Le President. Blanc was named 2007/08 manager of the year while in charge of Bordeaux, and led Les Girondins to the Ligue 1 title the very next season. The job in charge of Les Bleus seemed to be tailor-made.
“The only thing that matters to me is qualifying for the EURO,” Blanc told FIFA.com during an exclusive look back over his first year in charge of Les Bleus. “That’s all you ask of a national team coach.” With France top of Group D and well placed to qualify, it would appear that Blanc is well on his way to fulfilling his mission.
FIFA.com: It’s been a year since you took charge of the French national team. Would you say you now understand the key to success as head coach of a national team?
Laurent Blanc: No, certainly not, and I don’t think it’s possible either. The life span of a national team coach is never very long, and it’s the same for any other manager. Of course, there are other coaches who are more experienced than me, but I’m not overly concerned with knowing the job inside out. The only thing that matters to me is qualifying for the EURO. There’s no point having an in-depth knowledge of the job if you can’t lead your team to qualification. That’s all you ask of a head coach. The most important thing is to work hard and apply the things you want to put in place.
After a year in charge of the French national side, are you able to compare the role of head coach with that of a club manager?
The two roles have nothing in common. They’re two completely different jobs. When you’re in charge of a club side, you have your players at your disposal nearly every day. You can help them develop, communicate, talk, exchange ideas and discuss things. This is virtually impossible for a national coach. Let’s take the match against Chile as a concrete example. The players arrived at 13.00 on Monday, and the match was at 21.00 on Wednesday. What can you possibly hope to achieve in such a short space of time? Apart from helping them to recover and trying to promote a certain playing style and way of thinking, there’s not much more you can do. You need time. The job of a national team coach is more difficult than that of a club manager. Both national team coaches and club managers are expected to win, but the club manager has a bit more time to accomplish his mission.
Does that frustrate you?
It’s the reality. All coaches are in the same boat. You also need a bit of luck to be able to put together a competitive team as quickly as possible. That hasn’t been the case for us, and it’s taking a bit of time. It’s not easy. We’re in a transitional period where we’re no longer one of the best teams in Europe, let alone the world. And it’s tricky.
You said recently that a core of a team was emerging. Do you think you’ve now found it?
Yes, a core is emerging, but I haven’t set myself a deadline for that. The only important date for the squad, the federation and for those who love football is the EURO. It takes a lot of time to build a team. Occasionally it takes so much time that you find you haven’t had enough time to build one! We’re trying to move forward step by step. We’re definitely in the process of creating the core of a team, but the most important thing is to win matches. That certainly helps to speed things up.
Which players make up this core?
It’s made up of five or six players. If you look at the squads I’ve selected since the beginning of my time in charge, you’ll see that there are some players who are still part of the group. It’s a good sign for the players concerned. Still, nothing has been decided, and nothing is definitive. There needs to be space in the French team for young players and players who are in a particularly good run of form. This is important if you want to create regular competition for places. When you know your place in the national team is guaranteed, motivation can be hard to come by. That’s something you need to avoid.
You won the FIFA World Cup™ as a player in 1998. Are you trying to follow the same recipe for success as a coach? If so, what is it?
Times change, and so does football. In team sports, you need individual talents. Most importantly, you need to be able to use those individual talents for the good of the team, and not the other way around. We’ve seen how dangerous the opposite approach can be, and I think that was part of the problem in South Africa last year. Talent is important, but you have to try to create a team spirit – a group. It’s a fundamental part of winning matches and taking titles. That’s where the work lies.
How would you describe the team spirit that you have created?
It’s only when you go away together as a team that you have the time to judge that kind of thing. Things move rather quickly over the course of three days. That was one of the objectives of our trip to eastern Europe in June. There may be things to regret about the result against Belarus, but we can only be delighted with the team spirit shown by the players and coaching staff. It’s clear that experiences like that help to strengthen group ties. We’ll try to repeat the experience soon.
Zinedine Zidane said that Real Madrid’s new defender, Raphael Varane, has the potential to be the new Laurent Blanc. In your opinion, does France have a new Zidane?
We’d all like to see a new Zidane or a new [Fabien] Barthez, but you can’t live in the past. You have to live in the present and look to the future. We have some good young players, but in my opinion we don’t yet have any who have really exploded on to the scene, like Zidane did once upon a time. We all expect these lads to go on to shine for big clubs. It would be great for them and for the club involved, but also for the national team. As far as the Real Madrid player is concerned, I think the boy has potential but he’s not the only one. He has good qualities and I hope he’ll be given enough playing time to be able to show them off. But I have my doubts.
Speaking of young players, you’re no doubt familiar with the likes of Neymar, Ganso and Lucas?
They’re all anyone wants to talk about! They are good young players, but you can see that Brazil are struggling to work as a team despite their individual talents. You only have to look at their recent showing at the Copa America. It shows that exceptional individual talents don’t necessarily make a great team. Both Argentina and Brazil are proof of this. Talent is not enough, even if it is a necessary ingredient for a great team. When you have talent, or even genius, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll have a great team. It’s fortunate, because otherwise Brazil would have won ten World Cups instead of five. They need to leave a bit of success for the rest of us!