Age concern: French squad gripped by siege mentality

They dominated world football at the turn of this century but, after a lacklustre display in their opening match at these finals, many fear France's best days are behind them. Phil Shaw reports from Hamelin
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The Independent Online

Long before Thierry Henry or Zinedine Zidane arrived at their HQ near the city, Hamelin had a world-renowned legend of its own. The Pied Piper is hard to avoid, as evinced by the giant plastic rats guarding the entrance to the Rattenfängerhalle. Rat-catcher's Hall is where France's footballers meet the press, and if Willy Sagnol's remarks yesterday about criticism of Les Bleus represented opinion within the squad, the rodents have taken on a new symbolism after all these years.

Put bluntly, the French fourth estate went to town on the team after the opening 0-0 draw with Switzerland - and Sagnol, the Bayern Munich defender, was biting back. The media had called the players lethargic. They said they passed the ball sloppily. The formation was negative. And most damningly of all for Raymond Domenech, the coach, a consensus argued that the squad was simply too old. Sagnol, who is 29, is actually below the average age of the side in Stuttgart's baking heat. At 30 years and 191 days, it was the oldest France had ever fielded.

The sceptics who complain that Domenech ignored the best younger players could reasonably argue that Hamelin has proved an appropriate choice of headquarters for France while they are in Germany. In the story that has given the city its fame for eight centuries, the children were lured away after the burghers refused to honour an agreement with the piper, leaving only the older generation.

Sagnol is regarded by experienced France-watchers as part of a three-man power base within the squad, with Henry and Lilian Thuram, one of six survivors of the 1998 World Cup-winning team still in the ranks. His words were tantamount to an "official" rebuke from the players.

The swingeing attack included accusations of invading their privacy in a way that could only help their opponents - L'Equipe had printed the line-up to face the Swiss after allegedly "spying" on the final training session - and of everything from gratuitous criticism to trivialisation.

"The only thing I ask is that when we have a closed training session, you don't try to photograph it," he said, making no attempt to conceal his contempt. "That really annoys me. I used to do that sort of thing - peeping through the keyhole at people - when I was about four."

Sagnol claimed to be uninterested in the opinions of people who had never played the game professionally. However, the tone of his tirade suggested every word had been pored over in the camp. "We don't really pay attention to the critics, only people with the relevant experience. I don't care what journalists say. I put newspapers in the dustbin. I'd like to be a journalist because just criticising people is easy. Opinion is a word you use in politics; we are on a football pitch."

When it was pointed out that the comments of former players had fuelled the discontent over France's stumbling start, Sagnol changed his tack and made a barbed aside against those who "cross the fence".

Turning his attention to the phalanx of photographers, he complained that when he awoke in the morning at France's castle retreat, he saw lenses trained on bedroom windows. "I don't think the French people care whether Fabien Barthez sleeps in boxer shorts or underpants. I don't think you should take pictures of that."

Sagnol maintained that what the public did want to see was "what we do on the pitch". Reporters returned his sarcasm with interest. "We want to see what you can do, too," they chorused.

They will have their next opportunity in Leipzig tomorrow night, when France face a South Korea team buoyed by a victory over Togo in which they came from behind and displayed the kind of dynamism conspicuously lacking from France. Defeat cannot eliminate Domenech's team, but the black cloud of mutual antipathy will be dispersed only if they show a substantial improvement. A goal would be a start. Incredibly, after three barren games in the Far East in 2002 and another against Switzerland, France have not scored in the World Cup finals since beating Brazil to capture the trophy eight years ago.

A sign that Patrick Vieira still has the box-to-box energy of his Arsenal days would also be welcome. Non-French reporters who question whether the Juventus player and Chelsea's Claude Makelele might not be too similar to play together are told that Domenech needs both because of the waning physical presence of Zidane.

There is a question mark, too, over Henry. He has yet to impress in a major tournament and did not enhance his reputation by criticising Franck Ribéry - at 23, the "baby" of the squad - for his nervous passing against the Swiss. After foraging alone on Tuesday, he is likely to be partnered by Louis Saha in Leipzig.

There is, of course, the possibility that the vilification of France is both premature and unfair. No one should have been unduly surprised they did not beat Switzerland, the nations having drawn both games when they met in qualifying (when France, perhaps tellingly, failed to win either match against Israel). In 1966, when England became world champions, they drew their first game 0-0. Likewise Italy in 1982.

Sagnol responded to a question asking about supposed splits between younger and older players by twice telling his interrogator to "shut up". "The atmosphere in camp is good," he insisted.

There was still time for some thinly disguised criticism of Domenech's predecessors, Roger Lemerre and Jacques Santini. Admitting that France need a win tomorrow "for our serenity", he continued: "Unlike 2002 and '04, we have prepared well and we are fit. The confidence is there and the spirit is good. We are evolving. There is nothing wrong with the system or the tactics. We players just need to step it up a bit."

The former St-Etienne and Monaco right-back was not a member of the 1998 squad under Aimé Jacquet, but perceived one similarity between the respective sides that encouraged him. "We conceded just two goals in that tournament. You saw one part of the true France team against Switzerland - and that was the defence. If you don't concede goals, you can go a long way in the World Cup."

The class of '98 also started slowly, growing into a formidable force as the competition progressed. Sagnol was adamant that a "more aggressive and focused" showing against the Koreans and Togolese would carry them through, after which anything was possible. "Qualifying for the last 16 is our objective and we're doing it stage by stage," he said, adding matter-of-factly: "We will qualify."

As he left Rattenfängerhalle, he passed the sumo-sized rats and posters for a musical called, surprisingly, Rats. Willy Sagnol called the tune yesterday, but another failure, one more game without a goal, and Hamelin may have another vanishing act to its name.

France's age-old problem

TEAM TO FACE SOUTH KOREA

FORMATION 4-3-1-2

GOALKEEPER

Fabien Barthez 35

DEFENDERS

Willy Sagnol 29

Lilian Thuram 34

William Gallas 28

Eric Abidal 25

MIDFIELDERS

Patrick Vieira 29

Claude Makelele 33

Florent Malouda 26

FORWARD

Zinedine Zidane 33

STRIKERS

Thierry Henry 28

Louis Saha 27

Average age 29.7

The average age of the 736 players taking part in this year's competition is 27 years and 4 months. In terms of the oldest team on average, Czech Republic, France and Trinidad & Tobago share the honours at over 29 years, while Ghana are the youngest team with an average age of 25 years and two months.

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