Raymond Domenech has never been a man burdened by the weight of support from his countrymen. Even when the France coach led his side to the World Cup final in 2006, the credit largely went to Zinedine Zidane. At various points along the teams rocky road to South Africa, rumour had it that Domenech would be lucky to be in place come June. But this week, the public's relationship with the man in their dugout attained a new froideur: an opinion poll shows that only 27.3 per cent of the French population believe their team will reach beyond the group stage – and they only have South Africa, Uruguay and Mexico to contend with.
The big surprise in Domenech's chosen 30 is the omission of Real Madrid £30m, 22-year-old striker Karim Benzema. One of the hottest properties in world football last year but the forward is rapidly becoming used to being left out in the cold. The French press are not amused: L'Equipe proclaimed "Benzema's time is finished". France Football headlined: "The waste of Benzema".
Moreover, there will be no Samir Nasri or Patrick Vieira playing for France either. But it is the quality of the players ahead of Benzema that underlines his particular downfall. He has had a hard season with the galacticos, but Marseilles' Mathieu Valbuena is uncapped, Jimmy Briand plays for unfashionable Rennes and Toulouse's André-Pierre Gignac has often failed to impress in national colours.
A product of the Lyons academy, Benzema was a target for several major clubs last summer, but he has not had a good first year for Real. He has started only 14 league matches and been substituted 10 times – still, he has managed nine goals in all competitions.
"He has had a difficult year and I make my choices not always on the most visible criteria," Domenech said. "He has made efforts, but there is a time to make choices. It's complicated. I know what it's like for the players, but I'm not sure the players imagine how hard it is for the coach."
Domenech's explanation has inevitably stirred speculation that Benzema had been omitted after being linked in the French media with an under-age sex scandal, but Franck Ribéry and Sidney Govou, whose names have also been mentioned, are in the squad. "To me this is not a concern," Domenech insisted. "I'm only thinking about football and about what the players want to give on the pitch." Others suggest a personality clash is a more plausible explanation.
The latter comment is probably more relevant, Benzema having admitted last year that he did not always try his hardest when playing for France. Nevertheless Gonzalo Higuain, his fellow striker at Real, said that everybody in Spain had expected him to go to the World Cup. "It seems astonishing to me," Higuain said. "He's been involved throughout almost all of France's qualifying campaign. Looked at from here, the squad is very surprising."
One person who could benefit from Benzema's fall from grace is the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. United balked at the fee Lyons were demanding for the striker last summer – and his wages. Now, after a disappointing season at the Bernabeu and denied the opportunity to shine in South Africa, Benzema might be more accommodating over his salary, while Real could be prepared to cut their losses. Ferguson, a long-term admirer, may be tempted to do a deal.
On paper the French squad still has attacking quality, with Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka likely to receive support from Ribéry in midfield. Djibril Cissé, who has scored 29 goals this season for Panathinaikos, could also be in contention, having missed the 2006 World Cup after breaking his leg.
Henry, who was in France's 1998 World Cup party but did not play in the final, is the sole survivor from Aimé Jacquet's winning squad of 12 years ago. That Vieira, who came on as a substitute in that 1998 final and had been hoping to return this year, is also left out tells its own story. Vieira, has consistently refused to jump on the anti-Domenech bandwagon during the coach's turbulent reign, but was still left disappointed at a lack of communication. "I haven't spoken to him on the phone for six months," Vieira said. "We always had a good relationship, even when he was living through hard times. Considering my career, I would have liked more consideration." At 33, the Manchester City midfielder admits his international career is over.
In the light of France's struggle to qualify – they booked their place after Henry's controversial handball in the play-off against Ireland – some had expected Domenech to repeat his trick of four years ago by looking to the old guard. Having been in danger of not making it to the 2006 World Cup, France qualified after recalling three veterans: Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele. The "Zizou effect" galvanised the team, who defied all the odds and reached the final. France lost to Italy in a penalty shoot-out after Zidane was sent off for his infamous head-butt on Marco Materazzi. Five of the French team – Fabien Barthez, Thuram, Vieira, Zidane and Henry – were veterans from 1998.
If France's spectacular recovery saved Domenech's skin, there was amazement in many quarters that he survived the country's poor showing in the European Championship two summers ago. France failed to progress beyond the first stage, yet Domenech clung on to the job he has filled since 2004.
Thirteen of Domenech's 30-strong squad play outside France, for some of the biggest clubs in Europe. At home it has been a mixed season for French clubs. While two reached the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time for six years, both Bordeaux and Lyons have struggled for domestic form. Marseilles have won the championship - for the first time for 18 years - but have only three players in the preliminary squad. However, that is also a reflection of the quality of the players at Domenech's disposal elsewhere. Nasri's omission, for example, may be a minor surprise, but Domenech can still call upon midfielders like Real Madrid's Lassana Diarra, Bordeaux's Yoann Gourcuff, Arsenal's Abou Diaby and Chelsea's Florent Malouda.
English-based players are likely to dominate in a defence that could feature three Arsenal men, although William Gallas, who has had a calf injury, will need to prove his fitness before joining Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy. Given the quality of the players available, there is little doubt that Domenech's team should be performing better, but the French public lost faith in their coach a long while ago. And this time, there will be no Zidane – or Benzema – to turn to.
Stars who won't be at the World Cup
Karim Benzema France
The 22-year-old striker made his France debut in 2007, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Austria. Has scored 8 international goals, in 26 matches.
Party-loving nature is said to be the decisive factor behind his exclusion from Dunga's disciplined squad.
Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti Argentina
Deemed surplus to requirements by Maradona despite helping Internazionale to Champions League final.
Samir Nasri France
Has only impressed in fits and spurts for Arsenal but was a surprise omission by Domenech.
Ruud van Nistelrooy Netherlands
Lingering knee injury scared off Bert van Marwijk.