Football: Desailly: 'Where was the fighting spirit?'

While the French rose to new heights, English commitment was questioned. By Alex Hayes
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IF Marcel Desailly had a host of English team-mates at cosmopolitan Chelsea, he might have few friends in the wake of France's victory on Wednesday. The Chelsea centre-back ruffled some of Ken Bates' feathers recently when he suggested he might leave Stamford Bridge, if the Blues win the Premiership. His frank observations after the Wembley international will hardly endear him to Premiership opponents.

"The Wembley crowd was very quiet," Desailly said, "but the team didn't give them much to cheer about in the first half as England looked weak and unsure. We thought that they would come out in the second-half raring to go. Mais ou etait le famous fighting spirit. It never happened. Whether it be on the pitch or in the stands, there was no commitment."

Criticism hurts, not least when it is accurate. Desailly seems to enjoy inflicting defeats on the countries in which he plays league football: "I felt happier when we beat the Italians during the World Cup," said Desailly, who spent four years in Serie A with Milan. "But it is true that the English also have this pretentious side, which is often misplaced and annoying, so our victory is very satisfying."

Unlike their French counterparts, the English powers-that-be have consistently failed to address the problems. So, while virtually the entire present French side were a product of their football academies, which were set up some 20 years ago, our professionals were left scratching their heads, wondering where it all went wrong. Yet again.

"You felt, somehow, that if England had won this match they would have used that to excuse their poor results during the World Cup," Desailly added. "They would have said that they had played very well and been very unlucky, that they would have gone very far in the tournament and beaten France. Now, with this victory, we have put things into context." Perhaps Desailly was suffering from concussion after having spent much of the 90 minutes heading away England's predictable long balls.

Although Desailly will no doubt be criticised for his comments, especially as he makes his living on these shores, he may feel that he was merely echoing the views of the majority. According to Gerard Houllier, the previous Directeur National Technique, his Liverpool internationals were badly shaken. "When I saw them [the day after the match] they looked very down," he said. "I think this defeat hurt them a lot and they were genuinely shell-shocked."

It was a view endorsed by the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, who sat at Houllier's side at Wembley. "We didn't see the real England. When they went 2-0 down, they failed to react. That is hardly the English temperament."

Whatever the reasons, this was a French victory, not just an English defeat. The world champions were simply superior in every department and have now firmly established themselves as the team to beat. Why they had to defeat England to be recognised as such is still unclear, but so many unanswered questions remain about the final last July that Les Bleus may yet have to win a few more matches before they are shown the respect they deserve.

"What is interesting about this French team," said Youri Djorkaeff, "is that it has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors, and progressed as a result." This French side must, indeed, be the first actually to have won the World Cup before being branded as legendary. Michel Platini's Euro 84 winners captured the imagination in ways Zinedine Zidane's France 98 vintage can only dream of, but they never came close to matching their contemporaries' achievements.

Wednesday's victory was yet another step towards fulfilment. "My father lost here 5-0 in 1969," said Djorkaeff. "So, without wanting to over-indulge ourselves or take away their glory, I think we can safely say we are the winning generation."

The French revolution was not an overnight success, more a series of stages, culminating in the Stade de France triumph over Brazil last July.

First came the football academies which train and educate young players, then there were the strict financial rules which prevent a club from buying if it is in debt. On the pitch itself, the seeds of national success were sown when the clubs started reaching the latter stages of European cups in the early Nineties. In every year since 1990, at least one French club has reached a European quarter-final, with Marseille winning the Champions' League in 1993, and Paris SG taking the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1995. All with mostly French players.

Finally, the French football federation have allowed their managers to realise their plans. When Aime Jacquet said he wanted Desailly to play in central defence alongside Laurent Blanc, arms went up in disbelief. When Jacquet said Djorkaeff and Zidane could play in the same side, French eyebrows were raised. But in both cases Jacquet was right. And in every case, his employers stuck by him. Perhaps worryingly, none of these "stages" have yet been reached by English football.

For the present French manager, Roger Lemerre - who in many ways symbolises the stability within their game - the Wembley victory is just another chapter in Gallic history. "If the Twin Towers are to disappear, we will have written our name in the stadium's heritage."

Should Howard Wilkinson return to oversee England's football academy, and the Football Association achieve that elusive stability, the host nation may yet reap the benefits of certain clubs' youth policies. But, as the now all-conquering French have proved, patience is the key.

Lemerre perfectly illustrated the gulf between the two sides: "You have to remember that we are the world champions. It's not an accident that we won this game."

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