The symbolism has been unmistakable at the French national training centre this week. The leaves have turned a glorious yellow in the woods that surround the Centre Technique National at Clairefontaine, but by the time France have completed their two-legged World Cup play-off against the Republic of Ireland – the teams meet in Dublin tonight and in Paris on Wednesday – the trees will be all but bare.
Inside the centre meanwhile, at the end of a long drive, stands a huge model of the World Cup, Zinedine Zidane and Co having raised aloft the original in the Stade de France 11 years ago. The national coach, Aimé Jacquet, said at the time that much of the credit for the triumph should go to the team at Clairefontaine, headed by Gérard Houllier, who had transformed the country's player development programmes. The replica trophy is still an imposing sight, but on closer inspection the paint is starting to peel and fade.
The very fact that France are appearing in the play-offs tells you much about their fall from grace. Only three years ago Les Bleus were playing in another World Cup final, losing in extra time to Italy after Zidane's outrageous head-butting farewell, but after a miserable performance in the European Championships last summer, the French are now in danger of failing to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1994.
On that occasion defeats at home to Israel and Bulgaria in the last two qualifying matches left a stain on the reputation of David Ginola – whose loss of possession in the closing minutes of the final match led to the killer goal – and prompted the review that led to the changes at Clairefontaine and cost Houllier his job as national coach.
Today the man in the firing line, as he has been for much of his reign, is Raymond Domenech. For most of this week, however, the 57-year-old coach has kept a low profile. Perhaps mindful of the crowd reaction when his squad attended the Masters tennis tournament here at Bercy on Monday – the cheers when the cameras focused on Thierry Henry quickly turned to jeers when they switched to the coach – Domenech has been notable by his absence when the media have visited Clairefontaine.
He is not normally as reticent about public appearances, having proposed to his girlfriend during a press conference after France's European Championship flop last summer. He lives in a modest block of flats just yards from one of the biggest railway stations in Paris, although his name is not displayed at the entrance alongside those of his neighbours, who include, perhaps appropriately, a psychoanalyst.
Nobody would suggest that managing today's national team is an easy matter. Domenech has to work in the shadow of two great teams who captured French hearts in very different ways: the 1982 World Cup semi-finalists and 1984 European Championship winners, who were the epitome of French style, and the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European champions, who were great technicians and superbly organised.
Domenech took over in 2004 when Jacques Santini left for Tottenham Hotspur. Laurent Blanc, a member of the 1998 squad, and Jean Tigana, a hero from the 1980s, were among the favourites to step up, but it was the former national Under-21 coach who had the crucial backing of Jacquet, then the French federation's technical director. Domenech looked certain to be sacked following last summer's European Championship, but again received vital backing, this time from Michel Platini, president of Uefa.
Four years ago, when Domenech was in a similar predicament to today as France struggled to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, he turned, belatedly, to three of the old guard, persuading Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele to come out of international retirement. France went on to reach the final, although the public perception was that it was Zidane pulling the strings.
This time around Domenech has resisted the same approach by leaving out Patrick Vieira, one of only two of the 1998 heroes still playing at the highest level. Henry, who was in the 1998 squad but did not play in the final, is the sole survivor. As captain he supports Domenech in public, though he seemed amused by the coach's treatment at Bercy earlier this week. Two months ago he was reported to have told Domenech that the squad were bored by his training sessions and confused about how they were supposed to be playing.
There still appears to be a generational divide within the French camp. William Gallas said in his recent autobiography that the younger players seemed "cheeky" and "think they know everything but they know nothing". Platini is concerned for the future. "There has been an end of a generation," he said. "France need to rebuild a team."
The public have not been slow to show their feelings. If most of the booing has been aimed at the coach, the fans have also turned on the players. During a defeat in a friendly against Nigeria at St-Etienne the crowd were cheering the African side.
While today's Irish squad includes players from Scunthorpe, Preston, Reading and Bohemians (and none from Continental Europe), every one of Domenech's party plays in the top division of one of the big leagues. Twenty of them have been playing in the Champions League this season and the loss through injury of Franck Ribéry and Gaël Clichy has not significantly weakened the squad.
There is a feeling among the French public that such a group should not be in this position and that the players, through a lack of respect for Domenech, are not living up to their potential. Karim Benzema, one of the most gifted of the younger players, admitted recently that he did not always try his hardest when playing for France.
In public at least, the squad are standing behind Domenech. On a day when the main headline in L'Equipe, the sports daily, said that the Irish saw the French coach as their best chance of victory, Sidney Govou, the experienced Lyons striker, rejected any such idea.
"He won't be on the pitch," Govou said during a break from training at Clairefontaine. "The Irish are trying to turn on the pressure, but there's no debate. We're united as a group and in attacking him they are attacking us. It's not a question of supporting him. The only support we can give him is by performing on the pitch."
Former internationals are less reticent to criticise. Christophe Dugarry recently said that Domenech had "done everything the wrong way", while the hugely respected Zidane offered less than convincing support. "If France qualify, that will mean he has done his job," Zidane said of Domenech. "It's complicated to remove someone who's done his job. Nobody wanted to kick him out when he should have gone and now is not the moment to talk about that. On the contrary, I think we should get behind him and the team."
Domenech himself insists that he is giving no thought to his own future. "I only live in the present," he said. "I always say each game could be my last."
There was a time when the coach was said to pick his team according to their star signs and he clearly still believes greater forces are at work. "It is written somewhere," he said. "I somehow believe in fate. We are going to do all we can to qualify and make things last as long as possible."
Changing faces: Evolution of Les Bleus
Team v Brazil (1998 World Cup final)
1. Fabien Barthez (Monaco)
2. Lilian Thuram (Parma)
3. Bixente Lizarazu (Bayern Munich)
4. Marcel Desailly (Milan)
5. Frank Leboeuf (Chelsea)
6. Didier Deschamps (Juventus)
7. Christian Karembeu (Real Madrid)
8. Emmanuel Petit (Arsenal)
9. Youri Djorkaeff (Internazionale)
10. Zinedine Zidane (Juventus)
11. Stephane Guivarc'h (Auxerre)
Team v Italy (2006 World Cup final)
1. Fabien Barthez (Marseilles)
2. Willy Sagnol (Bayern Munich)
3. Éric Abidal (Lyons)
4. Patrick Vieira (Juventus)
5. Lilian Thuram (Juventus)
6. William Gallas (Chelsea)
7. Franck Ribéry (Marseilles)
8. Claude Makélélé (Chelsea)
9. Thierry Henry (Arsenal)
10. Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid)
11. Florent Malouda (Lyons)
Team (probable) v Ireland today
1. Hugo Lloris (Lyons)
2. Bacary Sagna (Arsenal)
3. William Gallas (Arsenal)
4. Éric Abidal (Barcelona)
5. Patrice Evra (Manchester United)
6. Sidney Govou (Lyons)
7. Lassana Diarra (Real Madrid)
8. Alou Diarra (Bordeaux)
9. Yoann Gourcuff (Bordeaux)
10. Thierry Henry (Barcelona)
11. Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea)Reuse content