Bloodless Revolution: Blanc seizes power with soft touch

It has taken a psychologist's help, but France's new manager has healed the team's explosive World Cup feud with his gentler style. Paul Newman visits the squad in Paris
Click to follow
The Independent Football

When France's players walk back to their quarters here at their training centre at Clairefontaine, they pass not only a massive replica of the Jules Rimet Trophy but also four large photographs hanging on the outside of the national federation's offices.

They show the France squad of 1958, who finished third in the World Cup, the European Championship winners of 1984, the World Cup winners of 1998 and the European champions of 2000. In the 1998 picture Laurent Blanc, then the most elegant of defenders and now the national coach, is standing next to the then French president, Jacques Chirac.

It is a past that might intimidate some players, but Blanc wants his men to be inspired by the feats of their predecessors in blue. He asked Zinedine Zidane to meet the team before their last match and, but for ill health, Just Fontaine, who scored a record 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup, would have done the same in the build-up to tonight's European Championship qualifying match against Romania at the Stade de France. Blanc has even brought back some of the staff from the 1998-2000 era, including Henri Emile, a senior administrator, Fabien Barthez, who is working with the goalkeepers, and Philippe Tournon, the press officer.

For the time being, nevertheless, a less glorious episode in France's past tends to be fresher in the memory here. It will be a long time before the events of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa are forgotten.

Dissatisfaction with Raymond Domenech's reign as France coach reached fever pitch in the dressing room at half-time during the match against Mexico, with Les Bleus being held 0-0. Nicolas Anelka launched into an abusive tirade against Domenech and was subsequently sent home. The players then went on strike during a training session and eventually returned to France in disgrace without winning a match.

Domenech was replaced in the summer by Blanc, who had proved his management credentials by taking Bordeaux to the French championship. The new coach decided it would be inappropriate to select any of the World Cup squad for his first match – a friendly defeat against Norway – but then found his hands tied behind his back through the suspensions imposed by the French federation following their investigation into the World Cup debacle.

Anelka, Patrice Evra, Franck Ribéry and Jérémy Toulalan were given bans of 18, five, three and one matches respectively. Blanc insists that he will consider all players when their suspensions are lifted, but Toulalan has not been recalled and the new coach has not selected Eric Abidal or William Gallas, two senior players who were at the World Cup.

The French public, it seems, have yet to forgive their team. When television cameras focused on the players as they watched a basketball match at Bercy this week, there were jeers and whistles from some in the crowd.

The affair will not go away. Domenech, who has been reporting to a dole office since his departure, is still arguing over compensation, while L'Equipe, the daily sports newspaper, carried a lengthy interview this week with one of Blanc's assistants, Alain Boghossian, who is the only significant survivor from Domenech's team, describing in detail what had happened during "l'affaire Anelka".

Blanc, nevertheless, is doing all he can to put the past behind him. He has brought through a new wave of players, giving encouragement to all. Saint Etienne's flying start to the season, for example, has been rewarded with call-ups for Blaise Matuidi and Dimitri Payet.

The squad's lack of experience – the back four on duty tonight is likely to feature only one player, Philippe Mexès, with more than 10 caps – is such that Blanc has tried to give them more time in the Stade de France. "Players can be intimidated both by what's at stake and by the environment," Blanc said. "When you come into a stadium that's loaded with history like this one you can let the emotion get to you and that can be draining."

He added: "Some players were all but taking photographs of the stadium on their mobile phones. We must stop that. Above all we must make sure that playing here doesn't become something that's difficult for the players."

Domenech's relationship with his squad had deteriorated to the point where he was barely talking to them. Blanc, in contrast, is a "touchy-feely" coach who puts his arm round players' shoulders and is always keen to engage them in conversation. Frustrated by the lack of time he has to work with his team, he speaks to them regularly on the telephone between international weeks.

Nevertheless, he is not afraid to criticise, in public or in private, and did not hold back in his assessment of the team's performance when they lost 1-0 at home to Belarus in his second game in charge, although he was equally quick to praise following a fine 2-0 victory away to Bosnia.

Blanc, who says that Domenech's regime lacked authority in dealing with the players, has urged his squad to make sure they know the words of the French national anthem and made them sign a charter pledging to behave properly. He was angered when Karim Benzema, Lassana Diarra and Abou Diaby arrived late at the training camp this week and has punished each of them, without revealing the details.

Boghossian, a squad member with Blanc in 1998, said the new coach's backroom team were "plus sudiste, plus bavard" – more southern and more talkative – than their predecessors. Earlier this week Boghossian spent an hour talking to Hugo Lloris, the goalkeeper, and Yoann Gourcuff, the playmaker, to find out how affected they had been by Lyons' poor start to the season. "There's more contact, more of a relationship with the players," Boghossian said. "It's logical. Laurent is 44. It wasn't long ago that he was a player."

When Blanc's assistants go on scouting missions they report back by telephone rather in writing, which was Domenech's preferred means of communication. The new coach also likes his team to see plenty of video footage of their opponents. In their rooms at Clairefontaine the players have one television channel devoted to their next opponents' recent matches.

Blanc emphasises the importance of team bonding. "Having been together since Monday I see people who are beginning to really appreciate one another," he said. "That's important in a group. They won't necessarily be the best friends in the world, but they are really starting to understand one another. That's a good thing. The difficulty for us, the technical staff, is to make them a solid group in this environment. If we achieve that, I think we will get results."

Some training sessions at the national training centre, a wonderful facility in rolling countryside in Yvelines to the south-west of the capital, are held behind closed doors, but others are not. Thursday's was held in front of a boisterous crowd of several hundred – local schools and clubs are invited to watch – with Blanc playing an active part. Wearing dark glasses throughout (even when he took part in a session of head tennis), Blanc led by example and retains the touch that made him such a superb player. The players clearly enjoy working with him.

"Since the start of this week, I've felt that this is a group of players who really want to progress," he said. "I sensed a real commitment from all of them. Everyone is aware of how much we need to improve and of the teamwork we'll need to achieve that."