France did not have an easy passage to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Second in Group 7 behind Serbia, Les Bleus eventually squeezed past Republic of Ireland in the play-offs to reach the world finals for the 13th time in their history.
The one constant of what was an unimpressive campaign from start to finish was the criticism levelled at coach Raymond Domenech, who nevertheless withstood the pressure to guide his team towards their objective.
The 58-year-old strategist has seen it all before, having already taken the national side to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany and UEFA EURO 2008. In doing so he became the first ever France coach to oversee qualification for two major international competitions in a row.
Yet the one thing missing from Domenech’s CV is a trophy. And having come so close at Germany 2006, the embattled Frenchman is looking to set the record straight in South Africa, an objective he agreed to discuss in detail with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Mr Domenech, there are just a few weeks to go now until South Africa 2010 begins. How well do you think preparations for the event are going?
Raymond Domenech: From what I've seen there are no problems at all. The pitches are superb and there are still more than two months left to make any last-minute adjustments.
A lot of criticism came France’s way during the qualifiers. Will that help bring the team together more?
The players are used to that kind of criticism. They know that when their performances don't meet people's expectations, they’re going to get criticised. Up to now it’s me who’s been in the firing line rather than them, but when the World Cup comes around they’re the ones who’ll be in the spotlight. My job will be to give them the responsibility to go and do the job themselves when the competition gets under way. I’m going to do everything I can before then to protect them and prepare them as well as possible. After that, though, it’s all up to them. Besides, I don’t think they’re going to be awarding any medals to the coach (laughs).
How have you handled the criticism on a personal level?
Like any other coach. I always tell the story of the frog in the boiling water. If you just throw it in, it’ll scream and suffer a lot, but if you put it in cold water and heat it up slowly, it will tough it out a lot longer. Being a coach is a little bit like that. You live with stress all the time. That’s all you have day after day. It’s a natural state.
The team never seemed to reach the standards expected of it despite all the talented individuals you have. What is stopping them from fulfilling their potential?
We’re in a transitional phase at the moment as one generation gives way to another. With the exception of Brazil, who have a huge reservoir of talent and can renew the team naturally without standards slipping, all the other countries have to go through cycles. The cycle we are in at the moment is maybe a little difficult. We’ve had older players who’ve been around a long time and have retired, and now we have to replace them. That’s the present situation and, if people don’t want to see that, then they’re not thinking straight. We are really working hard to come back with a strong cycle.
In last November’s play-off with the Republic of Ireland, the team seemed to be gripped by fear despite all its collective experience. Were you surprised by that?
It’s completely understandable. Ireland had nothing to lose. They’d lost 1-0 at home, there was a World Cup at stake and they needed to score a goal to go through and play good football to score it. They had no other option. They had to go out and score and it’s in situations like that that you play good football. Things are different for the other team, though. They’re almost through and they’re playing for their future in the same game. They know that everything can hinge on the slightest mistake or on conceding a goal. They have more questions in their head and it’s harder for them to play more freely. That’s exactly the situation we were in.
Your leading players have lots of experience though. Does that not change the situation?
It doesn’t matter how experienced players are or how mature they are. That doesn’t change anything. There were some nerves around then, and another thing that everyone overlooks is that Ireland have some quality players. The psychological factor balanced everything out between the two sides. When you have nothing left to lose you can just go for it. And on the flipside, when you have everything to lose you can be gripped by fear and freeze up.
You have been drawn in the same group as the host nation at South Africa 2010. Are you excited about that or a little fearful maybe?
It’s wonderful to be playing South Africa in a World Cup in Africa, no question. But it will be our third match and it’s a game that will play a big part in deciding whether one team goes through or the other, or maybe both. It’s not a game we can afford to take lightly. We can’t treat it like an exhibition match because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
In the build-up to Germany 2006 you told everyone to make a date for the final on 9 July. Will you be telling you fans to make a date for 11 July this time?
When I’m sure of something in my mind I always stand by it. But only the players can make me feel sure of something. In 2006, when I saw and heard my players, I said to myself: ‘We’re going to the final, that’s for sure’. Right now, though, I’m still putting my side together and there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding it and many things impacting on it. As soon as I get the players together and spend enough time with them then I’ll know. The World Cup is a bit like the start of a match: after the first five minutes I pretty much know how things are going to work out. It’ll be the same out there. Let’s wait until the start of the tournament. Then I’ll more or less be able to say how far we’ll go.