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French face the guillotine

Domenech says it worst when he says nothing at all; Germans lose their bottle as English media senses blood

IT’S time to gloat as an Englishman. However bad England get in this World Cup, at least they can’t be as awful as the French. Champions in 1998 and losing finalists four years ago, France looks in danger of crashing out without a whimper, or a goal, just as they did eight years ago. It seems that the French only turn up for alternate World Cups.

If anything, the French team’s performance this time around has been even more abject than in South Korea. Then at least they showed some fighting spirit when Thierry Henry was sent off against the Uruguayans. This time the Barcelona striker cut a sorry figure standing in his bib behind the French goal while watching his colleagues fail to test the Mexican goalkeeper once in 90 minutes.

Quite why French coach Raymond Domenech opted not to take his final roll of the dice by bringing on Henry as a third substitute is an enigma as unfathomable as Mona Lisa’s smile.

The French performance left Domenech speechless, admitting to reporters that he didn’t know what to say to his players. Quite whether he was referring to pre- or post-match is not clear.

Although the French are not yet out of the competition, they will need a miracle of Lourdes proportions to progress to the knock-out stage. Captain Patrice Evra, who was “disgusted” by the French capitulation, for one does not believe in miracles.

France striker Thierry Henry was kept on the sidelines during the World Cup group match against Mexico Thursday. AFP
Argentina coach Diego Maradona (right) hugs defender Martin Demichelis after their World Cup Group B match against South Korea. AFP

Split into more factions than a Dutch squad in the 1990s, the French camp is not a happy one. The one thing that Domenech has managed to unite is the French public, in its universal declaration that the longest serving coach of Les Bleus should be sent to the guillotine.

Unfortunately for those clamouring for the coach’s head, Domenech has already announced he is standing down after the finals. Judging by the team’s abject performances to-date it appears he has opted for early retirement.

Whereas Domenech is derided by his players, Diego Maradona is adored by his. Deftly deflecting criticisms from UEFA supremo Michel Patini about his coaching style as he gives each of his players a hug and a kiss on the cheek as they leave the pitch, the Argentinean seems to have perfected the Jose Mourinho touch of ‘the whole world might be against us but I still love you’ approach to football.

His players have responded to this tactile motivation technique by playing the most sumptuous football. Quite whether their cavalier style will work against better teams than Nigeria and South Korea only time will tell. But their performances have lifted the tournament.

After a slow start this World Cup is starting to simmer nicely. We could still see the football romantics of Argentina, Spain and the Netherlands battle it out with the pragmatists of Italy, Germany and Brazil, with Fabio Capello’s kick and run all-stars trying to upset the pot. And if Maradona’s men go all the way, Monsieur Platini for one might just have to eat some French humble pie.

Podolski’s miss breaks 36-year streak
When I woke up Saturday morning, I was in a state of total disbelief. Were my eyes betraying me? Did I really see the unimaginable take place on a football field? I’m not talking about England’s abject performance against Algeria. England group stage shockers come around as regularly as the coach asking for a contract extension prior to the finals. No, it was not England’s bore-draw, but the sight of Germany missing a penalty in a World Cup finals that made me rub my eyes.

Lukas Podolski joins Uli Hoeness in Germany’s most uber-exclusive club – the only players to miss a penalty in normal time in the finals. Hoeness had an effort saved by Poland’s Jan Tomaszewski in 1974 – a tournament the Germans still went on to win. Traditional German infallibility stretches to the ‘lottery’ of the shoot-out. Winning all four they have taken part in, they have missed just once in the process – Uli Stielike in the semi-final with France in 1982.

It might have taken 36 years to come about, but the Germans are beginning to show signs of choking under pressure.

Choking is something that English footballers have mastered over the years. While Germany’s World Cup shoot-out record is four from four, England’s is nought from three. Once more the tell-tale signs are there for all to see. The only player who performed creditably against the Algerians was Calamity James in goal, up front they looked as if they couldn’t even buy a goal.

While England’s attack looked decidedly toothless, sensing blood the English tabloid media showed no hesitation in sticking theirs right in.

“Cape Clowns,” declared the Daily Mirror, “Dull as Ditchwater,” announced the Sun. Even the erudite Guardian reader was greeted with “no spark, no spirit, no hope,” the morning after the Algerian night before.

Before each major tournament, the English press winds the nation up to such a frenzy of jingoistic expectation that nothing short of tournament success followed by a quick invasion of Germany on the trip back home will satisfy the nation’s clamour for blood.

As soon as a pass is misplaced – and there were many misplaced passes against Algeria – the same expectation comes crashing down on the players’ heads. Under the weight of such pressure it is hardly surprising that they fail to perform on the night. Friday night’s flop was by no means the first time England’s stars have left their fans sadly disappointed.

Even when they won the cup in 1966, England managed to draw 0-0 with Uruguay in the opener. And the run to the semis in 1990 followed disappointing draws with Ireland (1-1) and the Netherlands (0-0) in the group stage followed by a narrow 1-0 victory against Egypt.

If all goes to plan England will scrape past Slovenia, only to crash out on penalties having just played their best game of the tournament. And as for German penalty misses, we might just have to wait another 36 years for the next one.
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