Always guaranteed to divide opinion, the least that can be said about Raymond Domenech is that he leaves few people indifferent. Even as a defender during his playing days he was seen as a tough-tackling warrior by some and an over-physical spoiler by others. Now, after six years in the France job, he strikes supporters either as mischievous and passionate or over-confident and provocative. He is a paradoxical figure, uniting a nation as coach of the national team but splitting them down the middle when it comes to his methods.
As a player starting out with his hometown club Lyon, his combative approach quickly earned him the nickname ‘Le Boucher’ (The Butcher), and he happily cultivated his image as a hard-nosed defender by growing a somewhat intimidating moustache. Despite his uncompromising style, he earned recognition at international level and helped win two French titles, with Strasbourg and then Bordeaux.
His transition to coaching came in the twilight of his playing career, when he spent two years as player-coach for Mulhouse before finally hanging up his boots in 1986. Two years later, he became the first man in the dugout at the start of the Jean-Michel Aulas era at Lyon, who had spent the previous five seasons in the second tier. The return to his alma mater proved an immediate success, as Domenech led Les Gones back to the elite in his first season and kept them there for five years before taking on a job at France’s National Technical Training Centre and taking the reins of the French Under-21 side. He oversaw several gifted generations of talent during his time with the U-21s though was unable to secure any titles other than a pair of Toulon Tournament wins.
Appointed coach of the senior team in 2004, following on from the reigns of Roger Lemerre and then Jacques Santini, he brought an instant breath of fresh air to proceedings, not least due to his talents as an orator when confronted with the press. He inherited a squad weakened by the retirements of veterans such as Zinedine Zidane but eventually succeeded in persuading the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ winner to return to the fold, along with Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele. With those senior figures back on board, he boldly told the nation to clear their diaries for 9 July, 2006, the date of the Final, even before the tournament had kicked off. He kept his promise, however, as France won their way through to meet Italy in Berlin, when just one spot-kick against the crossbar during the penalty shoot-out denied him the hero status Aime Jacquet had been accorded eight years earlier.
Instead, he has had to grow used to a torrent of criticism whenever Les Bleus put in under-par performances, with the team’s poor showing at UEFA EURO 2008 a particular low point. Domenech was castigated for his tactical choices and his management of the squad, which contained a number of injured players and others struggling for form. He then did little to appease his critics when his first words to the media after France’s elimination contained a marriage proposal.
It was a far from uncharacteristic move for a man with a special interest in the spoken word and a penchant for the well-turned phrase, and whose press conferences have always been an occasion worth attending. Some of his more celebrated declarations include the lines: “Sometimes I think that if I was standing right in front of myself, I’d hate me,”; “If I could select myself, I’d play”; and “Only the results count – in the end I’ll either be God or the Devil.”
Despite the criticisms, Domenech has nonetheless overseen more France matches than any of his predecessors, including the 12 qualifying games on the road to South Africa. As he prepares his charges for the global showcase, his team and formation contain both genuine talent and experience, however a number of question marks remain. Much like 2006, in short.