June 19th, 2006 • 9:24 am
This really is quite extraordinary. The French are a team that is, on paper, so vastly superior to the Koreans that there was only one possible outcome for this game. The 0-0 draw against Switzerland in the opening group game last week had been more or less predictable, given that the French haven’t exactly been particularly impressive lately and that the two teams know each other quite well, having played against each other in the last Euro competition in 2004 and then having been in the same qualification group for this world cup.
But there was only one possible outcome for this France – Korea game—right? After all, the Koreans might have reached the semi-finals last time around, but they were playing at home in front of tens of thousands of hysterical fans. Surely this time they would be brought back down to earth by having to compete in a different continent against strong European opposition—right?
Wrong. Well, it was right for about 70 minutes. Predictably, the French team was stung by the criticism that followed their initial performance against the Swiss, and responded with much more purpose and energy. The cooler temperature for this evening game probably helped as well. They got the opening goal in less than a quarter of an hour, after Wiltord’s wayward volley was blocked and fell kindly for Thierry Henry, who only needed a couple of touches to put a fine finish past the Korean keeper.
They probably also should have had a second goal when Vieira headed a bullet that was clawed by the Korean keeper in a location up in the air that looked suspiciously close to having been beyond the goal line.
But then in the last 20 minutes or so they simply stopped trying altogether, and just sat back on their one-goal advantage, clearly assuming that the total absence of any opening for the Koreans during the first three quarters of the game meant that they didn’t really have any hope.
And that was, unfortunately, a colossal mistake. It’s not that the Koreans were able to create much in that last portion of the game. It’s just that, if you sit back like this, there is always going to be a number of iffy situations too close to your own net for comfort. And there is always a risk that one of these situations will result in a lucky goal for the opposition.
Which is, of course, exactly what happened. And the French have no excuses whatsoever. It’s simply unacceptable to adopt such an approach at this level. French fans all over the world must have felt betrayed by such an attitude. I know I did. And I have already pretty much given up on this team as a unit.
Sure, they have lots of fantastic talent in their ranks. But as a unit they are simply too disappointing for words. I don’t know whose fault this is. Everyone probably has to shoulder part of the blame. Domenech for his inability to take chances with the new generation and sticking with the tired old guard of Zidane, Vieira, Thuram, and company. Thierry Henry for failing to ignite these games like we know he can do. Barthez for being, well, Barthez, and keeping the impeccable Coupet out of contention even though he’s so clearly a superior goal-keeper. Etc.
Whatever the reasons are, this team appears simply unable to gel and gather any kind of momentum. There have been already so many great games and great performances by various teams in this competition that the contrast couldn’t be greater. The only other team with similar problems is the English team: the same collection of talent and egos, the same gutless kind of coach, the same inability to gather momentum and excite passion—the difference being, of course, that England is sitting on two victories and six points, while the French only have two draws and two points… The English have been quite lucky, and the French have be quite unlucky.
But you can only feel sorry for a team’s lack of fortune if they otherwise deserved your admiration. This team does not. I know that mathematically, it is not over, and that a victory against Togo with a two-goal advantage will be enough to guarantee their progression to the next round, regardless of the other results in the group.
Is there really, however, anyone who still believes that this French team can easily beat Togo? Based on last night’s performance, you can expect anything, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the game against Togo ended in victory, but with only a one-goal advantage.
It is really quite sad, but at this point the French team only has itself and its manager to blame. They can’t expect any sympathy from anyone else, and it will take at least a couple of much better performances to restore the enthusiasm of their fans and of the football-watching public in general.
The fact that Zidane will be suspended for the final group game against Togo could be a blessing in disguise, but only if Domenech has enough guts to reshape his team and make a selection that really does have the required motivation. Based on his existing track record, and on the group of players that he chose to bring with him to this world cup, there are good reasons to be concerned, very concerned.