Old is gold for Les Bleus

Senior members of the side such as Zidane, Makelele, Thuram, Vieira, Henry and Trezeguet have MORE WORK to do than just being at their peak form if France hopes to be in Berlin on July 9.

It sounds odd and rather too much like wishful thinking, but old-stagers Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele will provide the spark France have lacked for so long in Germany. Since a glorious spell of French domination around the turn of the century, which saw `Les Bleus' win the 1998 World Cup, the Euro 2000 and the 2001 Confederations Cup, their fortunes have taken a turn for the worse.

They have slid towards an exit from the world's top 10, quite alarmingly considering their dominance of just a few years ago and the decline was sudden and spectacular. With Zidane injured at the start of the 2002 World Cup, the French lacked direction and relinquished their title feebly, finishing bottom of a group containing Uruguay, Senegal and Denmark. The tournament began with France losing to Senegal, and they headed for home without even a goal to their name. It was the final straw for captain Marcel Desailly and defender Bixente Lizarazu, stalwarts of the French defence who quit shortly after the horror of their failure had sunk in. More were to follow as Zidane, Thuram and Makelele also decided to end their international careers two years later after being defeated by surprise eventual winners Greece in Euro 2004. Despite a flawless Euro 2004 qualification campaign, Jacques Santini's new-look side were eliminated in the quarterfinal after a 1-0 defeat by Greece. Santini left for a short-lived spell at Tottenham, leaving new coach Raymond Domenech with a young, talented but inexperienced squad.

Qualification for the World Cup proved extremely difficult. It evoked memories of campaigns for the 1990 and 1994 tournaments, when France failed to qualify. Despite starting as favourites to top their group ahead of Switzerland, Republic of Ireland, Faroe Islands, Cyprus and Israel, France were only mid-table after six matches. The announcement of the return of Zidane, then Thuram and then Makelele just before their final four autumn qualifiers provided the boost the team had been looking for. "Domenech came to see me two or three times in Madrid," said Zidane. "We talked and he told me what he expected from me. For the first time in my whole life I decided to go back on a very important decision," said Zidane. "It was important that I spoke a lot with the coach but I don't want to be back as Zorro, as a saviour."

Zidane, who replaced Patrick Vieira as captain, might not have been the swashbuckling saviour but his experience and reputation certainly revived the French. They eventually secured their ticket to Germany with a 4-0 victory over Cyprus to top the group. "It would be extremely silly to think we obtained qualification only thanks to Zidane," said Domenech. "But his return did help a lot in terms of confidence. He is a charismatic leader."

Whether France will manage to convince in Germany is another question. "The current context reminds me of 1998," said former French striker Nicolas Anelka, who did not win a place in Domenech's World Cup team. "At the time nobody thought France would become world champions. Before the competition people were questioning the team's qualities. At the moment, everyone believes France will be eliminated in the first round. It's true they struggled to qualify but that's also a good thing because they will not be favourites and the pressure will be less. I do believe that Brazil are the big favourites but that's what they were in 1998 also and history showed we beat them."

France begin in Group G — along with Switzerland, Togo and South Korea. "It's always tough because if you have not played the teams in question you don't really know what their real level is," said Domenech. "We know that Switzerland will be tough because we've faced them in the qualifiers and we did not even manage to beat them, and South Korea are also tough. All the teams will be well prepared for the World Cup. The objective will just be to win our first three matches. We saw in 2002 that a World Cup is always hard and full of surprises. That's why it is necessary to be extremely well prepared." The French coach is confident his side have learned from their past mistakes at the World Cup and insists the ambition will still be to lift the trophy in Berlin on July 9. "There is no need to dream about the second round, the quarterfinals or even more," he said. "To have good reasons to dream, we first have to play and win. Caution and ambition are the key words. But the objective remains to be in Berlin on July 9."

The recent walkout of the pre-World Cup training camp by goalkeeper Gregory Coupet — who was clearly miffed at Domenech's decision to announce Fabien Barthez as the number one keeper despite Coupet's better club form this season — has the potential to undermine team spirit though he came back to train. Senior members of the side such as Zidane, Makelele, Thurram, Patrick Vieira, Arsenal goal machine Thierry Henry and Juventus striker David Trezeguet have more work to do than just being at their peak form if France hopes to be in Berlin on July 9; they have to ensure that the team does not pull in different directions.

THE TEAM

Goalkeepers: Fabien Barthez (Olympique Marseille), Gregory Coupet (Olympique Lyon), Mickael Landreau (Nantes).

Defenders: Eric Abidal (Olympique Lyon), Jean-Alain Boumsong (Newcastle United), Pascal Chimbonda (Wigan Athletic), William Gallas (Chelsea), Gael Givet (Monaco) Willy Sagnol (Bayern Munich), Mikael Silvestre (Manchester United), Lilian Thuram (Juventus).

Midfielders: Vikash Dhorasoo (Paris St Germain), Alou Diarra (Racing Lens), Claude Makelele (Chelsea), Florent Malouda (Olympique Lyon), Patrick Vieira (Juventus), Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid).

Forwards: Djibril Cisse (Liverpool), Thierry Henry (Arsenal), Franck Ribery (Olympique Marseille), Louis Saha (Manchester United), David Trezeguet (Juventus), Sylvain Wiltord (Olympique Lyon).

Coach: Raymond Domenech.

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