France stand in shadow of successful forebears

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The Independent Football

Papa Bouba Diop has much to answer for in France. From the moment the Fulham midfielder - who was then playing his club football for Lens - gave Senegal victory over the holders in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup, the French national team have been in almost permanent crisis.

Papa Bouba Diop has much to answer for in France. From the moment the Fulham midfielder - who was then playing his club football for Lens - gave Senegal victory over the holders in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup, the French national team have been in almost permanent crisis.

Shadows of their former selves in South Korea and at last summer's European Championship finals in Portugal, France are now in danger of failing to make next summer's global gathering in Germany. A 1-1 draw against Israel in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, following three goalless draws in home qualifiers, has left Raymond Domenech's team top of the group but with what he admitted was "a tricky situation". Israel trail by goal difference, while Switzerland and Ireland are a point behind with a game in hand and home matches against France to come.

It is all a far cry from 1998 and 2000, when the teams of Aimé Jacquet and Roger Lemerre lifted the world and European crowns respectively. Lemerre's reputation slipped at the 2002 World Cup, Jacques Santini might have been dismissed after Euro 2004 had he not already announced his departure for Tottenham, while Domenech is now feeling the heat, despite his refusal yesterday even to consider the possibility of failing to qualify. The former Under-21 coach did not help his cause when he suggested in a recent interview that players' star signs can have a role to play in team selection.

Domenech's season has paralleled that of Arsène Wenger's Arsenal, the club who have provided some of France's best players but are similarly having to rebuild after a period of domination. Thierry Henry, who has not always shone in the Champions' League, has frequently disappointed for France, while Robert Pires has fallen out with Domenech.

Patrick Vieira is France's captain, but even his attempts to look on the bright side were less than convincing. "We mustn't panic," he said. "In the match against Switzerland on Saturday and then against Israel we weren't bad at all."

The French players have appeared hesitant under Domenech, but there are some encouraging signs. Walid Badir's late equaliser after a mistake by Fabien Barthez was the first goal France had conceded in their six qualifying matches, while David Trezeguet underlined his return to form by scoring, only to be sent off five minutes later for head-butting Tal Ben Haim.

However, whether this team can come anywhere near matching the exploits of Zinedine Zidane and his colleagues - several of the 2000 champions are still playing but are in international retirement - is another matter.

The French must dread being drawn with the Israelis, who also drew in Paris at the start of the current campaign. Cruising towards qualification for the 1994 World Cup, France conceded two late goals to Israel in their penultimate qualifier in Paris - the 3-2 win was the visitors' only victory of the campaign - and went on to lose by another late goal to Bulgaria. The result cost France a place in the finals and Gérard Houllier his job as manager.

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