Football: Fan's Eye View: No 220 France

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The Independent Online
"In France we have spectators, not fans," as the great Platini once said. Spot on, Michel. No matter what particular charms the game there may offer, it remains largely a pastime rather than a passion. No witty chanting form the stands, no overnight queueing for the new club shirt - and inflatable bananas? It just never happens in France.

So what's the appeal? If you're after pure entertainment, try French football: nowhere else in the world will a beautifully executed, but ultimately ineffective back-heel be cheered with such fervour. The fans - sorry, spectators - demand a bit of finesse, a touch of style and chic. What about the trois points? Yes, they matter, but victory often appears an afterthought. Le beau jeu is a precious gift and the French certainly know how to savour it.

The 1980s was French football's glamour period and I fell for it big time. Glossy pre-season guides adorned the newsagents' shelves, reams of daily analysis filled the pages of L'Equipe - this was real-life show business. French football provided a glorious cocktail of famous international footballers like Enzo Francescoli and Clive Allen, endless lavish spending sprees and insatiable media-monster presidents like Claude Bez (owner of the world's largest moustache) at Bordeaux and the great Bernard Tapie at Marseilles.

For me, Tapie was the king. This quick-talking, money-spinning entrepreneur built the finest team in French football history - remember Waddle, Papin, Abedi Pele? - which twice destroyed the mighty Milan and captured the imagination of a notoriously fickle public. Le Midi went mad and Big Bernard was on his way to world domination.

But it was soon all over. We watched in shock as the Marseilles bubble burst and out spewed the horrifying truth: a 1990s bribery scandal which revealed corruption on a vast scale. Tapie was rotten to the core, a tricheur par excellence who left a hallow, shameful feeling in the heart of all his worshippers - but hey, what a cracking ride we'd had following his bogus dream.

Gone now are the days of wild, wad-waving antics: all financial matters are controlled by an independent body in order to avoid the debt-ridden days of torture suffered in recent seasons. Not a bad idea, actually - might we see the nouveau riche Premiership boys adopt a similar scheme soon?

In fact, the French are full of good ideas. They invented all the major competitions - the World Cup, the European Championship, the European Cup - and saw the value of investing good money and quality coaching in youth policies decades before their British neighbours. Nantes alone, for example, have bred world-class stars like Deschamps, Desailly, Karembeu and Loko while Auxerre gave the world Basile Boli and Eric Cantona (and the coach is a bit of a nutter, too).

And when it comes to foreign imports, French clubs have always made the most of their colonial ties by recruiting raw talent from Africa. Excessive fees for Serie A cast-offs is not part of the French way; uncovering treasures like George Weah and Japhet N'Doram is much more their style.

All eyes shall turn towards France next summer when they stage the World Cup extravaganza. The stadiums have been beautifully renovated and are ready to welcome the people of the world - but can France win the tournament for the first time? The national coach, Aime Jacquet, is under heavy pressure to create a classy team capable of competing with Brazil, Italy and the rest - but let's be honest, it doesn't really matter. Just give us a few nifty tricks and flicks and we'll be happy. After all, why change the habits of a lifetime?

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