Aimé Jacquet: We respect England, says Frenchman who conquered the world

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Arriving at the Centre Technique National du Football in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines, in the Fôret de Rambouillet some 50 kilometres south-west of Paris, is enough to strike a chill into the heart of anyone who hopes that England will beat France in Lisbon tomorrow evening. It makes the England camp at Bisham Abbey look like Butlin's.

Arriving at the Centre Technique National du Football in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines, in the Fôret de Rambouillet some 50 kilometres south-west of Paris, is enough to strike a chill into the heart of anyone who hopes that England will beat France in Lisbon tomorrow evening. It makes the England camp at Bisham Abbey look like Butlin's.

A security guard admits us none too politely (that's something else the French are good at, the none-too-polite security guard) and we proceed up a long drive lined with towering rhododendron bushes. By we, I mean also Will Bland, a bright Cambridge undergraduate assisting this year at The Independent's office in Paris, and Damien, a young Frenchman who is driving us.

I am here to interview Aimé Jacquet, the 1998 World Cup-winning coach, who is director of the Technique National. Jacquet speaks little English, and although my French is passable, I am not too confident with phrases such as "diamond formation". Will has kindly agreed to interpret. Damien, who is a friend of Will's friend, is happy to drive us for the price of sitting in on the interview. For him to be at Clairefontaine is "extraordinaire," he says, wide-eyed.

It is as good a word as any. At the end of the drive, there are sweeping lawns, wonderful vistas, and a disconcertingly vast replica of the World Cup. On a pitch 500 metres away to our left, there is a lively practice game in progress. Vieira to Zidane to Henry. Goal.

Work began on the Technique National in the early 1980s, but it was at least as much an ethos under construction as a training facility. The ethos took a knock with failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, under Gérard Houllier, and Juste Fontaine - a French football legend who scored a record 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup - was scathing about the subsequent decision to elevate Houllier's assistant, Jacquet. "Jacquet is just another Houllier... a sad sort who doesn't know how to motivate players," he spluttered.

Well, four years later Jacquet's players had lifted the World Cup.

Most of them later lifted the Euro 2000 trophy. Some of them may yet lift the 2004 trophy. Jacquet seems like a man worth talking to ahead of "le crunch" in Group B tomorrow.

He rises behind his desk in a spacious office, an affable, engaging man of 62, who would easily pass for seven or eight years younger. Usually coaches look older than their years; maybe the secret is to give up when you've reached the top, which is what Jacquet did, announcing before the 1998 World Cup that he would be standing down afterwards whatever the outcome, and sticking to his word.

I ask him whether there is as much excitement about the England-France game in France, as there is in England. "The sporting mentality is deeply rooted in your culture," he says.

"It's not yet like that in France, although things have begun to change since '98. But France against England always has a special importance. I can't speak for Jacques Santini, but there's never any problem motivating the players before a match against England. Because England represents football's nobility. We have always considered the English un adversaire redoutable. England is the cradle of the game."

Bien sûr, I say, demonstrating my mastery of the lingo. But England are not European champions and France are.

"Yes, well, even if we believe that for the first time in history, France is ahead of England, we still have a lot of respect for English football. Especially after the magnificent last match between the two sides. Beaucoup, beaucoup de respect.

"We know that at the moment England have problems finding the right approach. But they have highly talented individuals: Owen, Heskey, Gerrard, [for Gerrard he reserves a Gallic pouf! of admiration]. We know that these are skilled individuals and even if they haven't perhaps found their shape, we also know that each time England are in a competition they become formidable. That's why I want to make clear that this match will be critical. It's this match that will determine the scale of France's success in the European Championships. It's the hardest match we will face.'

And so to England's much-discussed diamond formation. It was deployed unsuccessfully in the friendly against Japan, then discarded, successfully, against Iceland. What does Jacquet think about midfield diamonds? Are they the way to beat the French?

A smile, and a shrug. "I don't think you can overcome your opponents by tactics alone. You also need passion, and match-winning individuals.

"England have players like that, which is why they're so dangerous. Lampard [another, even more exclamatory pouf!] for example. He is a great player. If England find their unity the tactics won't matter. The match will be about intelligence, composure and patience.

"England and France have roughly the same strengths and weaknesses. It's the approach of the players that is going to make the difference."

But just to examine those strengths, Gerrard might be a fine player, but he is no Zidane. And Owen, by his own admission, is no Henry. Santini, I venture, has more reason to feel confident than Sven Goran Eriksson?

"Well, Zidane is the best player in the world. He's fantastic. No 1. The maestro, l'homme orchestre, of the French side. And a better player, I think, than he was in 1998. In 1998 he was only at the beginning of a long journey. He now knows how to make full use of his skill. He controls the game more, makes better decisions. In effect, he has increased his own potential, which is unbelievable. Thierry Henry? He was here at Clairefontaine when he was 13. It's phenomenal for us to see him playing at Arsenal with so much technical awareness and speed. He is possibly the most effective player in the world right now."

In England, I tell Jacquet, there is much discussion about how best to nullify the threat of Zidane, the threat of Henry. Is there much discussion in France about nullifying the threat of Owen, Rooney, Beckham?

"No. We know our team has the strength, collectively and individually, to overcome any opposition. We focus on our own game rather than theirs.

"Marking Lampard, Gerrard or Beckham is not the French approach. We focus instead on zones of the pitch, on initiative and daring. It's very important that we play to our own strengths. It doesn't worry us that the opposition have strengths of their own."

This brand of confidence didn't help France much in Japan and Korea, I unkindly remind Jacquet. But was 2002 perhaps a positive blip, as perhaps 1994 was, too, Roger Lemerre making way for Santini as Houllier made way for him?

"Well, 2002 was certainly a massive disappointment. We thought we were going to win but we were bottom of our group. Not a single victory, not even a single goal. It's almost unbelievable. But you're right, that enabled us, World Cup winners and European champions, to say 'we are in danger'. We have rediscovered the mentality of champions. Right now, we have players who are psychologically ripe for competition. They are very, very angry with themselves, still, for failing in 2002. They are determined to wipe out that memory.

"And this time, we've had a stroke of luck. Our players have not been under pressure at their clubs like they were in 2002. This time, the elimination of Real Madrid and Arsenal from the Champions' League was good news for us. Giuly went further and voilà, he was injured and written out of Euro 2004. But he's the only one."

Despite the progress of Monaco and Marseille in European competition this year, the French League can scarcely be compared to those of England, Spain or Italy. That remarkable, Motty-esque nugget of information from 2002 sticks in the head, that all the Senegalese team yet none of the French team played their domestic football in France. I ask Jaquet whether the diaspora of French footballers, and for that matter coaches, is good for the game in France.

"It is good for the national team, not good for the clubs," he says. "Obviously we'd rather that French players stayed in France, but, for economic reasons it's impossible. I heard that there are 60 French players in the English league. Sixty! That's incredible.

"But it's great to see French players and coaches respected around the world. In England alone, [Arsène] Wenger, Houllier, [Jean] Tigana, now Santini. I was certain Wenger would be a great success at Arsenal, because he actually has a very English attitude to life. He is rigorous but open-minded at the same time.

"Houllier I thought did a fantastic job at Liverpool. I was very surprised they sacked him because he gave them new ambition. He reinstalled a work ethic. He rebuilt the club just as he had done in France, by setting up the academy. And got results. Five cups, pouf! It's true that this season was difficult for him but they still qualified for the Champions' League. All the Liverpool players speak highly of Gérard. He put in place a whole new way of working. No, I think it was an injustice. I was disappointed with Liverpool. Before, I thought they were a great club, that they respected their staff."

But surely he must admit that of the players on whom Houllier spent £120m, not too many were a conspicuous success at Anfield.

"Yes, perhaps he made a few mistakes, but that's life. As a manager, if you want your club to stay at the top you need to change, say, five players a season. When I was at Bordeaux, for every five players I bought I was satisfied if three were successful. If only one or two succeed then it's a problem. But Gérard fulfilled his promise of qualifying for the Champions' League, and so guaranteed a steady income. He was in a position to give the club new momentum. I was saddened that he wasn't given the chance. I was saddened."

It was the momentum supplied by Houllier and others, he adds, that enabled him to make such strides after 1994. And great strides are still being made.

"We are the European champions at Under-17 level, don't forget. We have never been so strong. I work a lot with eight, 10, 12-year-olds, and more than anything it's about instilling a mentality. Before '98, there wasn't the mentality, even among the senior players. We were hesitant, unsure of ourselves. Not any more. And success breeds success. Before leaving the national side, I said to the players: 'We are all World Cup winners, every one of us. You must now pass on this experience'."

For a second, Jacquet's voice falters. It's either hay fever or emotion, and I think the latter. "I said 'you must show others what it's like to be part of a winning team'. Not all of them have the ability to pass it on. We now know that [Didier] Deschamps does. I am convinced that Laurent Blanc will. At Bordeaux I had Tigana, Giresse, Girard, and at the end of their careers they all said they'd had enough of football. Now they're all coaches. It's an obligation."

My hour with Jacquet is almost up. There is time for one more question. Who are the French youngsters he expects to light up the World Cups of 2010 and 2014? It would be nice to say you read it here first.

"If you don't mind, I'd rather not give names," he says. "My experience has taught me that players are often superb at 16 and nonentities at 20. Or nonentities at 16 and superb at 20. When he was 16, Thierry Henry hadn't yet found his feet." What chance of him losing them again in Lisbon tomorrow, I wonder?

AIME JACQUET LIFE AND TIMES

1941 Born on 27 November in Sailsous-Couzan, 40 miles from St-Etienne. Became a metal-worker after leaving school.

1966 Signed as a full-time professional for St-Etienne.

1984 Won the French league title as Bordeaux coach, repeating the feat in 1985 and 1987. Sacked for being "too honest" by club president Claude Bez.

1993 Took over from Gérard Houllier as coach of the French national side following elimination from the 1994 World Cup qualifiers.

1996 Reached the European Championship semi-finals.

1998 Won the World Cup with France then resigned (with a record of three defeats in 53 games). Became advisor to the French Federation and now runs the national training centre at Clairefontaine.

1999 His memoir Ma Vie Pour une Etoile - "My Life for a Star" - was the year's best-selling biographical book in France.

2001 An experts' poll in France Football magazine voted him coach of the century.

2004 In April, was under consideration to replace Humberto Coelho as coach of the South Korean national side.

Tom Shannon

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