Football: Life after Hoddle - Success story of French succession

Alex Hayes in Paris meets the man serving his country's football mission; Lemerre revels in the leading role as a dynasty pays dividends for the Wembley-bound world champions
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THERE IS a poster in Roger Lemerre's office which perfectly illustrates the existing gulf between French and English football. It depicts his predecessor, and manager of the World Cup winners, Aime Jacquet, holding a Tricolore cockerel, and simply says: "Merci!". Any poster of Glenn Hoddle in Lancaster Gate which read "Thanks!" would bear a very different meaning and would no doubt be hanging in the smallest room. The world champions hardly needed a helping hand for Wednesday's game anyway, but they must be growing more confident by the minute.

Confident because of their achievements on the field, but also because of the stability within the French game. There is no sign of jealousy in this dynasty. While the acting chairman and chief executive of the English FA look for a permanent replacement for the acting national manager, the French ensemble will present itself virtually unchanged since 1994. The one positive result might be that the English game is finally prepared to emulate French success on, as well as off, the pitch.

Not that success materialises overnight. In the French case, 30 years of hard and often laborious work have only recently produced results. "Everything was carefully planned," says 57-year-old Lemerre proudly. "From the clubs taking on young players, right through to the DTN [Direction Technique Nationale] - started by the legendary Georges Boulogne and which oversaw the whole operation with the support of the Ministry of Sport - the idea was for all French teams to play the same style of football, with the players progressing through the ranks."

The apotheosis of Boulogne's work, continued by all retiring national managers such as Michel Hidalgo, Gerard Houllier and now Jacquet, came on 12 July 1998 when France lifted the Jules Rimet trophy. "Winning the World Cup is something I cannot really explain," says the professor-like Lemerre. "It is a strong and meaningful experience. It does not mean you are better, but it gives you more confidence and self-belief. It literally transforms a country."

Few who witnessed those euphoric scenes on the Champs Elysees in Paris last July would disagree. "I was much younger at the time of the Liberation and, in any case, this was a celebration of a sporting event. Having said that, whenever a nation `takes to the streets' it is very special. There was a tremendous feeling of warmth and appreciation from those crowds. Our achievements were being recognised which is most important for a sportsman."

It must have been particularly poignant for Lemerre, an unspectacular defender who played close to 460 first division games, earned six caps over a five-year period in the Sixties, and managed a succession of clubs with moderate success (he led the present French champions, Lens, to promotion to the first division), before finding his vocation, when he joined the French Football Federation's crusade.

As with every crusade, the French model's success can be largely attributed to an unshakeable belief in the mission and the willingness of individuals to put their personal ambitions aside. "I lived with the team for six months and became a world champion with it, so I see my role as one of accompaniment. I just go with the flow," he says candidly.

In sharp contrast to our system, where every new manager virtually has to start from scratch, the French insist on continuity. "After the triumph, there was no consensus as to who should get the job," says Lemerre. "I was around, and the president [Noel Le Graet] asked me to do the job. So I am continuing the mission," he explains, with perhaps a trace of false modesty? "No. It is simply that I did not get the top job to change things."

Lemerre's "If it ain't broken, don't fix it" policy has been seen in some quarters - not least the now more vicious L'Equipe - as a weakness. His decision not to tinker with a winning formula may be understandable, but many fear the group may commit the cardinal sin of resting on their laurels. "Ah non," he exclaims. "I will let them live and develop as a unit, but I won't be negligent. I just know that when I was a player I didn't want to be disturbed, and it's the same for these guys now. I know how internationals operate."

To his credit, Lemerre has managed to keep the winning squad together (apart from the Rangers keeper, Laurent Charbonnier, who exiled himself), and results, including a 3-2 away win over Russia, have been good. "The World Cup players have done everything in their powers to remain in the squad, so the others must follow their example and do everything in theirs to enter the group. My mission is to look for a healthy marriage between youth and experience and create competition for places."

When the English party returned from France, they seemed pleased with their achievements. Whether Hoddle's over-confidence or the nation's acceptance of glorious failures are to blame is debatable. But self-indulgence is no French trait. "The richness of this group is that, even now, the players aren't sure whether they can play football. They refuse to take anything for granted, and remain focused and determined. If they are prepared to show such dedication, how could I have an over-inflated ego?" How indeed.

Along with the big four (Petit, Vieira, Leboeuf and Desailly), Nicolas Anelka is likely to feature in the proceedings at some stage. For others, though, their international careers appear to be over. "Nobody denies that David [Ginola] has incredible talent," agrees Lemerre. "He is doing great, and I am delighted. But the French team is something else. David understands."

Lemerre insists he is impressed with the English team. If there may be an element of gamesmanship in those views, his envy of our sport culture is genuine. "I always felt very English in the way I grew up. I love the fact that sporting achievements, as well as academic ones, are respected. It is ironic then, that the sport you invented gave me a job, while your old manager was so influenced by his time with Monaco."

Lemerre won't be drawn on Hoddle's departure or France's chances of winning. "The point is that you invented the game, and Wembley is the home of football. For us it will be a special moment. Especially as no French side has ever won at Wembley and I lost there 5-0 in 1969."

According to Lemerre, it took one infamous Frenchman to break down the barriers (and jump over one) in England. Maybe these highly anglophiled Bleus will create their own history on Wednesday night.