Santini to Sven: 'We have it tougher than anyone else'

Euro 2004 verdict
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The Independent Football

Considering that they are the reigning European champions, one might expect France to be full of optimism ahead of next summer's tournament in Portugal. Instead, Les Bleus seem unusually cagey. Ask their manager why the mood is so sombre and Jacques Santini gives a simple answer: "South Korea and England".

The statement may seem a little bizarre, but Santini is in fact referring to France's two biggest concerns. South Korea was the venue for the team's débâcle at the World Cup finals in 2002, when the then defending champions were eliminated in the first round. The French players have still not fully recovered from their Far Eastern failure, and questions remain as to how they will cope on their return to the big stage. Cue England, who are France's first opponents at Euro 2004, and their greatest threat in a Group B that also includes Croatia and Switzerland.

"Everyone wants to know if we are still at the top," says Santini, who took over from Roger Lemerre in July 2002. "We have qualified well [France were the first country to join the hosts at the party] but now we have to prove that we can still win tournaments. Last year's World Cup was a big blow, but we want to show that it was just a blip."

No matter that the French have a habit of raising their game against better opponents, as they proved last month by defeating Germany 3-0 away, Santini did not want to face Sven Goran Eriksson's men in the opening match. "The biggest problem is that so many of our players are too well known in England," the former Lyon manager says. "In a way, this match is going to be like a derby, and both teams will be desperate to win. I'm excited, but nervous also."

Having won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, France should have little to fear. And yet, one senses a genuine respect for England. "At this stage, it's difficult to say exactly what shape England will be in come next June," Santini explains, "but we know all about their defensive resilience, with Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell in the centre; and we know all about David Beckham and his free-kicks."

Santini adds: "The focus will turn to England soon enough, but the key at the moment is to get the preparation right. The tournament is still a long way away, and our only concern is to get to Portugal in the best frame of mind."

That may be easier said than done, because club commitments will dominate the calendar right up until the champ-ionship. As was the case in the lead-up to the last World Cup, France will have little time to prepare. "We'll have to be super-quick," Santini laments. "In between the Champions' League final, on 26 May in Gelsenkirchen, and the opening game of Euro 2004, on 12 June, every European team manager with players involved in both events will have just 12 days to get ready. That's crazy."

Bearing in mind that most French internationals ply their trade at the continent's biggest clubs, it is perhaps little wonder that Santini suspects he may have picked the shortest straw. "When I hear Mr Eriksson complaining he will not be with his players until the end of the Premiership season on 16 May," he says, "it makes me want to point out that the Germans will not finish until the 22nd, while we and the Spanish go on until the 23rd. We have it tougher than anyone else."

Such concerns have persuaded Santini to plan the French assault with painstaking precision. "We will not make the same mistakes as in South Korea 2002," he says. "We will not, for example, stay in a hotel where other guests are allowed. That happened in the Sheraton in Seoul, where every Tom, Dick and Harry could just mill around. This time, we will be based near Porto, and no one else will be anywhere near us."

Santini's planning also extends to the friendlies Les Bleus will play before the England confrontation. "Scotland, Ireland and Wales are all options," he admits. "We want to be primed for Portugal, because we all know that a good Euro 2004 will finally heal the scars of the disappointing World Cup last year."

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