Football: Les Bleus get the blues

Letter from Paris
Of which international football team were these words written last week? "Completely lacking in imagination... incapable of changing rhythm... clumsy delivery of the final ball... clueless before packed defence... bizarrely organised."

Bizarrely organised? It must be Kevin Keegan's Bulgarian blunderers. Wrong. The words, and many more, were written by a crestfallen French press on Thursday after France, the world champions, won away from home in the Euro 2000 qualifiers.

They won? Yes, but it was an ignoble, even undeserved victory, by one goal, scored four minutes from time, from the penalty spot, against Andorra, a country which has only 50 adults registered to play football at any level. The tiny Pyrenean principality (chief industries: skiing and smuggling) has 11 football clubs and 1,713 players, children included. However, the overwhelming majority of the grown-up footballers are Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, not eligible for the national team.

Twelve months after their World Cup apotheosis, Les Bleus scrambled a victory against what amounted to a village team. Four days earlier, at the Stade de France, they let slip a 2-1 lead in the final 15 minutes and contrived to lose 3-2 to an unimpressive Russia - their first defeat as world champions.

In the circumstances the French press has been - while rightly critical - a model of stiff-upper-lipped composure. After two bad results no-one is calling for the sacking of Roger Lemerre, the man who replaced Aime Jacquet as coach of the French team. The only newspaper to come close was that model of stately judgement, Le Monde. Converted to regular football coverage by the French success in the World Cup, the afternoon bible of the Parisian intellectual classes said that Lemerre would have been "stringing his suitcases" if France had not been given a last-gasp penalty against Andorra.

It was a bizarre match, played in the Montjuic stadium in Barcelona, home of the city's "other team", Espanyol, and the American football team, the Barcelona Dragons. The stadium was eerily empty; the pitch looked ragged; the gridiron markings were clearly visible on the turf. Andorra lined up in a theoretical 5-4-1 formation. Their true shape was 5-5-0.

The taxi-drivers, postmen and waiters crossed the half-way line with aggressive intent only once, in the 36th minute. They niggled Christophe Dugarry into a red card after only 26 minutes: but nothing was going to make them come out and play because they knew they could not play. For Andorra, 0-0 against the world champions would have been as good as a victory in the World Cup final.

They seemed about to achieve their goalless goal - all but knocking France out of Euro 2000 - when a defender punched the ball in the penalty area in the 86th minute. Franck Leboeuf's spot kick narrowly evaded the goalkeeper.

At the whistle the French players, with the noble exception of Marcel Desailly, ran straight off the pitch, refusing to shake hands or exchange shirts with the amateurs and part-timers. Leboeuf was in an especially foul mood, despite scoring the winner. He said the Andorrans had "insulted football... Faced with a team like that, we felt like we were wasting our time".

Half fair enough. It is absurd that pond-life teams like Andorra, Liechtenstein and San Marino are allowed to clutter up the Euro 2000 qualifiers. Could there not be a pre-qualifying competition, as in the Champions' League? But the fact remains that the world champions were made to look so clumsy, spiritless and brainless by a park side. They were without Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram; but they had Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires and Christian Karembeu.

Unlike the manic-depressive elements in the British press, the French sports pages were ready to make excuses for their heroes. After a long season, flowing almost unbroken from the World Cup, it was accepted that the players were "in an advanced state of psychological fatigue".

Personally, I think the French press got it about right. The timing of the internationals in the last 10 days was ruinous for all players who had been involved in lengthy, unbroken club seasons. France now face a trickier path to qualification for Euro 2000 than England. Keegan has to go to Poland and win, which is quite possible; Lemerre has to go to Ukraine (aka Dynamo Kiev) and win, which is an alarming proposition.

None the less, the only hysterical headlines in the Parisian news kiosks on Thursday were those above Bulgarian datelines on the back pages of the British tabloids. As Voltaire would have said, if he had written for L'Equipe: "England is a strange country. They shoot the national football team manager every third week - pour encourager les autres".

John Lichfield