more than technical excellence
OF all the great matches in World Cup history there is one above all others that strikes a chord with the French sporting public. France's momentous 1982 World Cup semi-final against West Germany in Seville was not just a game of the highest drama and excitement but a defining moment in French sporting culture. As Aime Jacquet, the French coach, prepares his team for the forthcoming World Cup, he will be only too aware of the legacy his men have inherited from 1982.
Many images come to mind when recalling the Seville game: Harald Schumacher's horrific assault on Patrick Battiston; the half-fit Karl-Heinz Rummenigge coming off the bench to inspire Germany's revival and force a 3-3 draw; Uli Stielike and Maxime Bossis sinking to their knees after missing in the World Cup's first penalty shoot-out; Horst Hrubesch jumping in celebration after his match-winning spot kick.
Yet for those who love French football, one of the images that stays clearest in the mind is that of little Alain Giresse, his face a picture of pure joy as he raced away after scoring France's glorious third goal at the end of another flowing move.
The goal put France 3-1 up in extra time. At that stage probably any other team would have shut up shop and defended their lead. This, however, was France, the nation for which style is as important as - perhaps more important than - substance.
Inspired by one of the game's all-time greats, Michel Platini, the French side played with verve, elegance and flair. When they were 3-1 up - against the old enemy - they could not resist the temptation to keep attacking, to keep playing the beautiful game.
That approach cost Michel Hidalgo's team the match, but it did not cost them their place in the hearts of the nation. The French wanted to win, but this was a glorious way to lose.
In almost any sport, winning is not as important to the French as it is to most countries. Some successful French rugby teams of recent times did not endear themselves to the public because they put their emphasis on pragmatism rather than flair. In tennis the French love charismatic players like Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte.
Not that the great French football team of the 1980s were perennial losers. Two years after Seville Platini's goals too France to the European Championship on home soil. By 1986 the team were past their peak, although the World Cup brought another semi-final - and defeat again by the Germans - after a thrilling victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals.
While the French side do not have the ghosts of previous World Cup winners to haunt them - as nearly all the other major favourites for France 98 have - they are inevitably compared (in general unfavourably) with Hidalgo's team.The presence of Platini at the head of the World Cup organising committee serves only to keep the comparison alive.
Under Jacquet France have been hard to beat, concede few goals and are winners. That is hardly surprising, for since making sweeping changes to its coaching and youth programmes a few years ago French football has provided a conveyor belt of top-class talent for clubs across Europe.
Throughout the continent French footballers are regarded as players of great technical ability. In the 1980s Platini, who played for Juventus, was the only leading French player to succeed at club level outside France; of this year's World Cup squad, 13 play abroad, seven of them in the best league of all, Italy's Serie A.
Yet the French public have still to warm to their national team under Jacquet. The press and the fans have been so critical that in a bizarre television advert earlier this year leading French players confronted the problem by telling the supporters : "You booed Platini. You booed Tigana. You booed Papin. So please boo us." It was, apparently, meant to be a double bluff, aimed at provoking the country into giving their team some support.
Jacquet managed the highly successful Bordeaux team of the 1980s. The Girondins, who became a force in Europe, were consistent winners but they failed to excite in the style of St Etienne, their predecessors as the dominant force in French football.
Until now France under Jacquet (who took over after the team failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup) have not been dissimilar to that Bordeaux team, except that the success in competitive matches has yet to come.
In Euro 96 France started promisingly but a lack of goals and an over- cautious approach saw them fade. They failed to score in four hours of open play in the quarter-finals and semi-finals against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, winning one penalty shoot-out and losing the other. In last summer's Tournoi de France and in subsequent friendlies they have often failed to sparkle, with a shortage of goals their biggest problem.
What has particularly alienated sections of the French public is Jacquet's apparent mistrust of flair. David Ginola has been unable to win a place in the side and Eric Cantona's retirement may not have come so soon if he had been in Jacquet's thoughts. While it is true Cantona often disappointed for France, he was rarely picked when in his heyday with Manchester United. Moreover, while Cantona and Ginola may have had their day, it seems strange that a French team short of goals and attacking flair can ignore the claims of Arsenal's Nicolas Anelka.
Of the forwards in contention for World Cup starting places, Christophe Dugarry has scored twice in 24 internationals and Stephane Guivarc'h has scored one in seven.
Jacquet has experimented with different formations recently and the theory last week was that he would play with two wingers, Thierry Henry (no goals in two internationals) and Robert Pires (two goals in 12), at the expense of Youri Djorkaeff. Yet it seems unthinkable that Jacquet would drop the Internazionale player, who is the one man in the side with a proven goalscoring record at international level, 16 in 38 appearances.
Yet despite all the reservations one can have about France, there are several reasons to think they might have an exceptional World Cup. Firstly they have a settled and accomplished defence: Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly are a highly experienced and capable central defensive pair, while the excellent Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu provide quality on the flanks.
Secondly, they have Didier Deschamps to anchor the midfield, with Christian Karembeu and Arsenal's Emmanuel Petit in competition to play alongside him. Thirdly, in Henry, Pires and David Trezeguet they have young attacking players who have the potential to be among the very best.
Finally, the one reason above all for optimism is a balding 25-year-old who at first sight looks physically like an old-fashioned centre half. Zinedine Zidane, France's playmaker, may sometimes appear ungainly but there are many who would agree with his Juventus coach Marcello Lippi, who considers him the best player in the world.
In appearance Zidane is not unlike Cantona, and the similarities do not end there. Both were born in Marseilles of immigrant stock - Zidane is of Algerian extraction - and both had disciplinary problems in their early years.
Zidane is a wonderfully creative player, yet he plays in a very undemonstrative way. With his head down, concentrating intently, he can suddenly produce a deft turn or defence-splitting pass when you least expect it. He is also developing into an accomplished goalscorer.
There are worries that he can be man-marked out of a game - Billy McKinlay did a highly effective job when France played Scotland last November - and he performed lethargically in Euro 96, but there is no doubting his ability. Most importantly, to the French public at least, he has the flair they crave. If anyone can rediscover the style that made Platini's France side national heroes, it is Zidane.