Seaman left exposed in the pony-tail style stakes

French football has been reborn, while in England we seem, perennially, to be eight months pregnant with expectation
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The Independent Online

In my student days, as a full-back of boundless enthusiasm but limited mobility, I sometimes played football alongside an Iranian postgraduate called Araz Ali, whose command of English was about the same as my command of the right flank, which is to say, shaky.

In my student days, as a full-back of boundless enthusiasm but limited mobility, I sometimes played football alongside an Iranian postgraduate called Araz Ali, whose command of English was about the same as my command of the right flank, which is to say, shaky.

Araz was once heard to ask if a forthcoming match against another university was "a lovely". To everybody's delight, he meant a friendly. And so whenever I watch a so-called friendly, full of career-threatening tackles and angry players squaring up to tight-lipped referees, I think of old Araz. For example, there was nothing remotely friendly, let alone lovely, about Saturday's tussle between Marcel Desailly and Martin Keown. At 1-0 to France, Desailly gabbed Keown and gestured furiously towards the scoreboard. At full-time, following Michael Owen's splendid equaliser, Keown returned the compliment.

The Frenchman might have pointed out, however, that beyond the scoreline at the Stade de France there is still precious little equality between the two nations. And I don't just mean the differences between individual players, although a comparison between the urbane Desailly and the agricultural Keown would itself speak volumes. No, there is more to it than that. Even the ritual preamble before kick-off favoured the French. I mean, they have La Marseillaise, a rousing revolutionary anthem bursting with emotive imagery about blood-soaked flags and roaring soldiers, while we have God Save the Queen, an obsequious dirge (which, incidentally, is always played a beat too slow by bands at overseas football grounds, doubtless as a ploy to infuse our boys with lethargy).

And consider the stylishness of their players as opposed to ours. To my mind, footballers with pony-tails should keep to the Doncaster Belles, but better a swishing blond job like Emmanuel Petit's than the embarrassment, more evocative of a knackered old donkey than an exuberant pony, newly sported by David Seaman. In fact, now that I think about it, it is surely significant that Seaman waited until Petit had left Arsenal before he unveiled a pony-tail of his own, the follicular equivalent of keeping your shirt on at the beach until the guy with the bulging muscles and washboard stomach has gone.

Then there is the Stade de France itself, as potent a symbol as any of the resurrection of French football, and a startling contrast to tired old Wembley. The fact that Wembley is about to be refurbished, or so they keep telling us, simply reinforces the symbolism. French football has been reborn, while in England we seem perennially to be eight months pregnant with expectation.

But let us not dwell on our inferiorities. Let us instead celebrate our assets, starting with a domestic football league strong enough to provide every player in Saturday's side, plus all the substitutes with the exception of Real Madrid's unsettled Steve McManaman. By contrast, only two of the French team play their club football in France, namely the stand-in goalkeeper Bernard Lama, of Reims, and Nicolas Anelka, back, after his tormented wanderings, at Paris St Germain. For the French Football Federation, this is naturally a cause for concern. Moreover, the progress of part-timers Calais to last year's French Cup final, as gloriously romantic as it was, apparently caused great wailing and gnashing of teeth, for it was seen as an alarming indictment of professional standards.

You can understand the consternation. France are world and European champions, and at grass-roots level the game is thriving, to the extent that my friend Tony, who plays for Neuilly Olympique, says it is easier to get a child into Eton than into the bulging junior ranks of just about any amateur club. Yet Paris, unlike virtually every other major European city, sustains only one decent team. The Federation cannot even find a club to play in the magnificent Stade de France, PSG having declined.

Monaco still scrape barely 10,000 fans for their home games. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma, as Winston Churchill once said of Stan Collymore.

As for the exodus of the cream of French footballing talent - the boot drain if you like - cause and effect are easier to comprehend. I'm sure the Federation knows, and is greatly consoled by, the fact that France are world and European champions because the best players ply their trade all over Europe, not despite of it. Zinedine Zidane was not the player at Bordeaux that he has become at Juventus. Ditto Deschamps, Thuram and Lizarazu. So if there is one upside to the threatened abolition of transfer fees, it is perhaps this: with our players free to wander Europe like 18th century mercenaries, with David Beckham learning new tricks at Barcelona and Gareth Barry developing his skills at Lazio, we might yet produce a national side capable of winning trophies by playing lovely, if not friendly, football.

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