At some moment during the 0-0 draw with Urguay, you're forced to look back to the French team sheet and then back to the pitch in confusion. Of the 23 players in the French squad, there are eight Ligue 1 winners, five Premier League winners, three Champions League winners, and two Treble Winners.
The scariest thought is that those figures don't even really do justice to this squad. You have arguably the best young goalkeeper in the world, the best fullback pairing at the World Cup, the most dogged defensive midfielders in world football, and a playmaker who almost single-handedly led Bordeaux to a Ligue 1 title and broke the chokehold of Lyon over the French league.
Like a scrambled puzzle, however, the pieces haven't come together to make a whole. The qualifying campaign was not as disastrous as some have made it out to be, as their stuttering qualifcation came mostly through draws. However, drawing with Romania and only managing a 1-0 win over the Faroe Islands doesn't inspire confidence.
What is far worse, and a damning indictment of the entire team's structure, is the way they have performed. They play sluggish, rigidly patterned, devoid of life football that adds to its ugliness by failing to produce the results that such "functional" systems so often do.
To watch France is to watch players set up like wooden blocks in square shaped slots, each filling a dot in a 4-3-3 system, but failing to understand the idea of movement and passing. It's akin to telling a youth player to stand in midfield and having exactly that, a player standing in midfield waiting for play to come by. No understanding, no reading of the game, just standing. It's as if the fluid fundamentals of modern football have been replaced by a base level understanding of what a "formation" actually entails; rules rather than guidelines.
Atop all of that is of course the personal struggles and conflicts of the team, on and off the pitch. Franck Ribery and Sidney Govou involved in a child prostitution scandal. William Gallas revealing an ugly megalomania by refusing to speak to journalists in silent refusal of his removal from captaincy. Flourent Malouda constantly clashing with the coaching staff. Nicolas Anelka (allegedly) refusing to pass to Yoann Gourcuff. Of course the monument to all of France's current problems comes back to Thierry Henry's handball against the Irish.
Such a controversial event not only made a mockery of the French national team, but showed just how desperate France truly were. For Henry, a man who has never properly fit with the captain's armband for either club or country, his handball was like the smart kid in the class cracking under pressure and cheating through an exam. The saddest part of it is that Thierry Henry, one of the most exicting and talented gifts ever presented to football, will likely have his reputation deeply sullied, although not ruined, by one moment of shock and desperation.
For a massive, European powerhouse, to have such divisions and conflicts so early into the World Cup brings to mind only one other team of similar stature. Italy in 1974 went into the tournament as one of the favorites, and left in aboslute shame and their squad tore itself apart slowly, with both club and subsitute/first team rivalries taking center stage.
To understand France's woes, one must give a fair and balanced assessment to France's most maligned and, at the same time, most important figure. Raymond Domenech.
"I always had a good relationship with him, even when he was in trouble". Those were the words of excluded midfielder Patrick Vieira, who in the same breath said that the France head coach had "a lack of class". Vieira unknowingly managed to describe the entire nature of Domenech in one swift sentence. A pretty nice guy, often in trouble.
Domenech, former Mulhouse, Lyon, and longserving France U-21 head coach (where he led the U-21s to a 2002 final), is quite possibly the most hated manager in world football. No other manager has been so riviled in his own country, so vilified by his players, and so scapegoated for the problems of the national team. When Domenech took his players to a French tennis match, the cameras swiveled and put his face on the arena's screen. Boos and jeers erupted throughout the stadium, and most damning of all, his players smiled and smirked, both pleased and embarrassed to be with their head coach.
The faults of Domenech are truly numerous. His France team have, for the most part, been fairly poor, ever since his appointment, and have the dangerous habit of drawing too many games. His interest in astronomy and zodiac symbols have often led to accusations of strange selection procedures as with Robert Pires and the belief that Domenech distrusted Scorpios. Never mind that Robert Pires was old, slow, and that the French team had far better replacements, any chance to vilify Domenech was taken and run with eagerly, showing the lack of faith in his management.
In defense of Domenech, to criticize his squad selection is to criticize the basic idea of picking players on form. Djibril Cisse scored at an unbelievable rate in the Greek league (a weak league certainly, but a scoring rate not even closely rivaled by any of his teammates). Mathieu Valbuena helped Marseille to the double and their first rophies since the Bernard Tapie scandal of the mid 90's. Nicolas Anelka has been at his best for Chelsea when played in the lone striker role. In fact, one could argue that Domenech's greatest strength has been his his ability to call up the right players. We'll save that for later.
The problems that France face are numerous, but Domenech has been blamed for some he has no control over. Could he be held accountable for a long term back injury to William Gallas? For the disconcerting dip in form by Ribery? For Andre-Pierre Gignac's inability to prove that he has more than one great season in him? It's a damning indictment of you attacking lineup if Thierry Henry, who has been sitting on the bench for most of the season at Barcelona, who is 32, and who has been pilloried at every turn for his handball, to still be the most effective striker in the squad.
But then again, the French FA's unrelenting faith in Domenech has one very reasonable defense. The World Cup 2006 Final. How could a coach, who by all accounts has never come to grips with a strategic and tactical way to make France tick, and who doesn't have the personality to galvanize his players, lead a team to a World Cup Final?
"When Zidane arrived it was a strange atmosphere like God was coming on earth. The moment he came back the confidence turned around and we felt like we were the best in the world". Words by Florent Malouda that almost write articles for themselves in describing just what Zidane meant for the French national team.
When he and Lillian Thuram exited retirement to turn France's fortunes, proving that there is some genius in Domenech's call-ups, the stage was already set for a rise from the ashes. Thuram gave steadiness to an uncertain defence and Zidane, in no simple terms, did the rest.
To watch France at the World Cup in 2006 is to see a team set up very similarly as it is now. A fairly stoic, unflashly, ridigly structured 4-2-3-1 (which Domenech only recently altered by necessity rather than by choice). Undoubtedly, Vieira, Makelele, Gallas, Henry and Ribery were all in and around their prime, but still the system remained the same. There was only one difference, and that difference, in particular, went on show for the world in France's 1-0 win over Brazil, as Zidane patiently picked and guiled his way through the entire Brazil lineup, much like he did in 1998.
Saying that a team is worse off without Zidane is akin to saying that the 1986 Argentina squad wouldn't have won the world cup without Maradona, or Brazil in 1962 without Garrincha. It's pretty obviously so. But what is so interesting about France without Zidane (or, as it would be, very uninteresting) is just how desperately France need a player with creativity.
Domenech's system was overidden by Zidane's guile and wizardry. His skills surpassed any rigid formulations and brought to fruition the patterns and movement that the squad without him so clearly lacked. He saw runs, he made the killer pass, and when the team needed it, he scored goals. In retrospect it's easy to see just how average the squad as a whole performed, but how they got their groove back once they had a certain bald-headed conducter.
Samir Nasri, as a young, cherub-like boy playing beach football in Marseille, when asked if he would like to be like Zidane said "I'll never be like him. He's the best". Asked years later about the interview, Nasri reasoned about his response and said that it came from the "heavy" legacy of trying to live up to Zidane.
Regarding another inconic playmaker, Zidane once said that, as a boy, he always played as Michel Platini. All of his other friends could choose whom they liked, but he was Platini.
It's no coincidence that France, often having talented squads (something which has only grown along with the Arab and African immigrant population), has lacked that final spark without a playmaker. In a way, having Platini and Zidane is the greatest pair of gifts as well as curses. With them, France have lifted two European Championships, finished third at the '86 World CUp, reached the final in '06 (losing because of Zidane's head), and finally won the trophy on home soil in '98 (victorious because of Zidane's head).
Without them, France are a tale of shambolic failings and attaining far less than the sum of their parts. They slumped to a horrific group exit at the 2002 World Cup with Zidane limping around the field following a long series of injuries. Without him at all the team collapsed at Euro 2008.
Following Platini's playing retirement he ironically failed them as a manager, failing to get the sqaud to the 1990 World Cup, and crashing out at the 1992 Euro group stages. The nadir of all this came entirely without either Platini or Zidane's invovlement. With two games to go, France collapsed at the final hurdle, losing both their games and failing to qualify. Ironically, this brought about France's most successful period, as the appointment of Aime Jacquet finally brought France World Cup glory.
In a way, France have long managed to underwhelm when they should be easily dealing with such things as qualfication. This strange achilles heel of the playmaker's dependence is one, unfortunately, unlikely to be remidied.
France's most likely "new Zidane/Platini" is Yoann Gourcuff, a tremndously talented player who has, unfortunately for his country, come off a fairly poor season at Bordeaux, after using his magical skills only a season before to completely change the face of French football. His lack of experience in the squad, as well as Samir Nasri's exclusion (although it's highly doubtful that he could've done better than Gourcuff) means that a squad that needs a technical leader to unleash all the strength and speed that France so obviosuly have.
Although an early draw in a poor group is nothing to strike doom and gloom over, there is nothing in the team to suggest that they are likely to perform any better than they have in qualfying, historically or substantively. It is very likely that this squad of such immense talent and depth could end up crashing out of the World Cup, behind the likes of Mexico and South Africa.
For a writer who's first full World Cup occured in 1998, such a negative prediction comes with the heavy heart of a fan who has built a deep affection and following of an adopted national team.
Hoping for better, Allez les Bleus.