France crossed a new threshold in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, having never before graced the finals on four consecutive occasions. Les Bleus have become a regular presence in recent years, having earned a reputation as one of world football’s leading teams since the late 1990s. Their fine displays at the first edition in 1930 marked them out as a good side and they have occasionally produced legendary talents, but only in the last decade or so have they evolved into a team that starts every major tournament with serious hopes of winning it.
The generation of players that included Zinedine Zidane, Laurent Blanc, Didier Deschamps and Fabien Barthez finally found a way past the obstacles that had blocked the route of earlier vintages. The fine team featuring Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, Luis Fernandez and Jean Tigana had stumbled at the semi-final stage in 1982 and 1986, but their successors went all the way to lifting the Trophy in 1998.
Despite a drop in standards in 2002 and 2006, France still came agonisingly close to grasping a second global title in the latter tournament, only losing out on penalties to Italy in the Final. The Zidane chapter came to a close that night in Berlin, but Les Bleus can still call upon some of the biggest names in world football, with a seemingly endless production line of young talents having unearthed the likes of Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Yoann Gourcuff in recent seasons.
The road to South Africa
They may not have done it in style, but France just about satisfied the demands of their supporters by booking themselves a place in South Africa. It took an extra-time goal in their play-off with Ireland to give them a 2-1 aggregate win and finally send them through, and that came after they had finished second in qualifying Group 7 of the European Zone.
Pipped to first spot by Serbia, frustrated by Romania and given problems by Lithuania, Raymond Domenech’s charges kicked off their bid with a damaging 3-1 loss in Austria, but they later rallied to secure a 1-1 draw in Serbia despite being reduced to ten men and finding themselves trailing early on. After that, they saw out the section with a 5-0 success against the Faroe Islands and a 3-1 victory over Austria. Pessimists will focus on the team’s troubles in securing a ticket to the main event, while optimists will recall that they also flirted with disaster ahead of Germany 2006, before going on to reach the Final.
The star players
Since Zinedine Zidane, Fabien Barthez, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram all called time on their international careers in 2006, a new selection of senior figures has stepped forward. With Patrick Vieira having long struggled with injury, sole France 1998 survivor Thierry Henry has taken the captain’s armband, with William Gallas the leader at the back and both Jeremy Toulalan and Lassana Diarra indispensable in midfield. Meanwhile, the emergence of Yoann Gourcuff, the talent of Franck Ribery and the rejuvenation of Nicolas Anelka have given the coach a variety of options in attack, where Karim Benzema, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Florent Malouda and Loic Remy will also be hoping to feature.
The French public have come to regard Raymond Domenech as a paradox unto himself since he took the reins in 2004. Praised for his communication skills when he first arrived, his perceived weaknesses in that domain were leapt upon after France failed to shine at UEFA EURO 2008. Domenech has yet to lift silverware with Les Bleus, but he is now the country’s longest serving national coach and can point to a FIFA World Cup Final appearance as the highlight so far of a career that has had a steady upwards trajectory.
Mulhouse and Lyon were his starting points in the club game before he entered the national fold to coach the Under-20s, after which a worthy record with the U-21s won him a crack at the senior side. As a player, he was a combative defender who won the French league title with Strasbourg in 1979 and Bordeaux in 1984, in addition to the French Cup with Lyon in 1973 and Paris Saint-Germain in 1982, plus a total of eight caps in the 1970s.
Previous FIFA World Cups
Les Bleus have appeared in 12 final tournaments, winning on home soil in 1998. Regular actors on the greatest stage of all, France also managed third-place finishes in 1958 and 1986, as well as fourth spot in 1982.
- 1 FIFA World Cup (1998)
- 2 FIFA Confederations Cup (2001, 2003)
- 2 UEFA European Championships (1984, 2000)
What they said
"The objective was to qualify. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I never had any doubts. We’ve had difficulties for two years now, but everyone kept believing and they were justified in doing so. We grabbed hold of the right to take part in something exceptional – a World Cup in South Africa.” Raymond Domenech, France coach