Only Germany could have added much to a field including the home country, with one defeat in 34 games, world champions Brazil and a revitalised Italy. Twelve months from now, Fifa would certainly settle for seeing those four in the World Cup semi-finals, having packed Hodd's Barmy Army back home on Eurostar (assuming, of course, that they had made it to France in the first place).
The Germans, however, have other priorities, like a qualifying match in Ukraine next weekend, and there are distractions of one sort or another for all the Tournoi contestants that may prevent it reaching the heights. Brazil's sights are on the forthcoming Copa America, their equivalent of the European Championship, and their preparation began badly with a 4-2 defeat in Norway on Friday night.
The hosts have been beset by poor preparation and a row over boot sponsorship worthy of the Dutch at their worst. The French Federation have a contract with Adidas which states that players must wear that company's boots for all internationals until 2002. But such a deal runs counter to individual contracts held by 15 of the squad who are paid to endorse rival footwear.
The result has been a bizarre threat by the squad to take the field barefoot against Brazil unless the issue is resolved at a meeting tomorrow. In April, against Sweden, the parties reached a compromise when the players wore Adidas boots but with the trademark three-stripes blacked out by shoe polish. This time, however, the federation are adopting a more intransigent attitude.
Like Terry Venables's England in the long run-up to Euro 96, the French should be welcoming the advent of something more stimulating than friendly matches to pep up the players and their supporters. In the Umbro Cup of 1995, Venables and his cohorts were jolted out of any complacency by Japan, Sweden and Brazil and reminded of some of the basic tenets of tournament play.
France, as their technical director Gerard Houllier suggests, should benefit from a re- acquaintance with something approaching serious competition, without needing to call for the guillotine should results go against them. "It's friendly, but it's a mini-tournament," Houllier said from Toulon, where he is overseeing another generation of the country's enviably productive youth system. "There's something at stake and you want to win it."
Houllier, like the more principled former national team managers, refuses to talk in any detail about his successor, but Aime Jacquet has had plenty to say for himself about the squad's preparations. This evening, 48 hours before the opening game against Brazil, he will wait anxiously for airport taxis or telephone calls as six of his leading players return in varying states of fitness and fatigue from Italy, where they play this afternoon in the final Serie A matches of the season.
Some, such as Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane of Juventus, have been released from that obligation, though in their case there must be mental scars, caused by the anguish of unexpected defeat in Wednesday's European Cup final. Not only Inter and Parma, fighting for the second Champions' League place, but also Sampdoria and Milan, have declined to release the other members of the nine-strong French contingent until this evening, Milan's refusal particularly annoying Jacquet, who said of their coach Arrigo Sacchi: "With a former national manager in charge, I thought Milan would understand our problems. I was deluding myself. If they don't release the players in time to be with us by 8.45 [tonight], they'll be breaking the rules."
If France have a weakness, it is that once again their most gifted players are midfielders rather than strikers. They should have reached the final of Euro 96 but failed to score in four hours of football against Holland, and then a weakened Czech Republic, who squeezed past them on penalties in the Old Trafford semi-final.
Brazil have been able to demand the release of all their leading exiles, to the annoyance of Barcelona and Real Madrid, now neck-and-neck for the Spanish League title. The coach Mario Zagallo is no happier than Jacquet, though. Earlier in the week, he was reported to be fed up with Ronaldo, apparently sobbing in his room over the break with Barca, and furious with the European agents swarming round the Brazilian honeypot.
Then came failure against the direct play of Egil Olsen's Norwegian shock- troops, which will certainly encourage England. "The Brazilian midfield was as organised as garbage, so it was easy for us to play well," said Olsen. Romario, fit and keen again but 32 now, scored one of the goals and may prove harder to handle than Ronaldo in his present disturbed mood.
Juninho, like Eric Cantona, David Ginola, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli, is surplus to requirements, and will not be in France this week. That says something about the strength of Brazil, France and Italy and, perhaps, about the strength of the Premier League too. With Frank Leboeuf a second choice for France and Patrick Vieira still awaiting his chance, only Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo of our much-hyped imports are likely to be on show.
Form guide over last 10 games
P W D L
10 7 2 1
14.7.96 Fifa XI (neutral ground) 2-1 won; 28.8.96 Russia (away) 2-2 drew; 31.8.96 Holland (a) 2-2 d; 16.10.96 Lithuania (home) 3-1 w; 13.11.96 Cameroon (h) 2-0 w; 18.12.96 Bosnia (h) 1-0 w; 26.2.97 Poland (h) 4-2 w; 2.4.97 Chile (h) 4-0 w; 30.4.97 Mexico (n) 4-0 w; 30.5.97 Norway (a) 2-4 lost.
P W D L
10 7 2 1
22.6.96 Spain (h) 0-0 d Euro 96; 26.6.96 Germany (h) 1-1 d Euro 96; 1.9.96 Moldova (a) 3-0 d World Cup; 9.10.96 Poland (h) 2-1 w World Cup; 9.11.96 Georgia (a) 2-0 w World Cup; 12.2.97 Italy (h) 0-1 l World Cup; 29.3.97 Mexico (h) 2-0 w; 30.4.97 Georgia (h) 2-0 w World Cup; 24.5.97 S Africa (h) 2-1 w. 31.5.97 Poland (a) 2-0 w World Cup.
P W D L
10 7 2 1
15.6.96 Spain (n) 1-1 d Euro 96; 18.6.96 Bulgaria (n) 3-1 w Euro 96; 22.6.96 Holland (n) 0-0 d Euro 96; 26.6.96 Czech Rep (n) 0-0 d Euro 96; 31.8.96 Mexico (h) 2-0 w; 9.10.96 Turkey (h) 4-0 w; 9.11.96 Denmark (a) 0-1 l; 22.1.97 Portugal (a) 2-0 w; 26.2.97 Holland (h) 2-1 w; 2.4.97 Sweden (h) 1-0 w.
P W D L
10 6 2 2
14.6.96 Czech Rep (n) 1-2 l Euro 96; 19.6.96 Germany (n) 0-0 d Euro 96; 5.10.96 Moldova (a) 3-1 w Euro 96; 9.10.96 Georgia (h) 1-0 w Euro 96; 6.11.96 Bosnia (a) 1-2 l; 22.1.97 Northern Ireland (h) 2-0 w; 12.2.97 England (a) 1-0 w World Cup; 29.3.97 Moldova (h) 3-0 w World Cup; 2.4.97 Poland (a) 0-0 d World Cup; 30.4.97 Poland (h) 3-0 w World Cup.Reuse content