France needs a leader at World Cup
Who will step up for Les Bleus in South Africa?
Officially, it was a slipped disc that prevented France coach Raymond Domenech from travelling to Manchester City on the last day of the English Premiership season to check up on the form and fitness of Patrick Vieira.
But it now appears that Domenech had already decided Vieira, who was nominally still France's captain despite not playing a competitive game for Les Bleus for over two years, would not be part of the World Cup team going to South Africa.
Domenech had a chance to reverse that decision when Lassana Diarra pulled out of the 30-man initial squad with a stomach injury, but he chose not to, despite previously saying: "Pat brings a lot to the team. Even just by his presence, he is very important to have around the place for the other players."
The double-snub for Vieira has left France with no obvious leader either on or off the pitch for its World Cup campaign.
"They miss a real leader, a screamer, a guy capable of talking and putting his mates back in their place," said former France defender Willy Sagnol. "In 1998 there was Laurent Blanc, in 2006 we had Lilian Thuram. Today no one has embraced this role."
Domenech as much as admitted he had a problem when he checked if Claude Makelele, 37, would come out of international retirement for the tournament. He said no.
In the 30 internationals since Vieira last captained the side in a competitive match, France have had seven different captains (Thierry Henry 16 times; Thuram seven; William Gallas, Eric Abidal and Patrice Evra all twice; and Sidney Govou once).
The man who has taken Vieira's place in the side, Jeremy Toulalan, has admitted that he does not share his predecessor's skills at inspiring his teammates.
"I've always been told that I should talk more on the pitch, but I am not someone who speaks much off the pitch either," the Lyon midfielder said. "Patrick is a leader, whether it's on the pitch or when he speaks."
Henry wore the armband during qualifying, but he has another problem: as a result of his wretched season at Barcelona, he has lost his place in the France side. In the team's two pre-World Cup friendlies against Costa Rica and Tunisia, Henry was only on the bench.
That has left Evra captaining the side, and the Manchester United defender has impressed everyone with his leadership skills. His club coach, Alex Ferguson, had already given him the responsibility as captain earlier in the season and has ear-marked him as a leader of United in the future.
"He has the force of personality to command the dressing-room," Ferguson said.
Evra is certainly passionate about this France team: he boycotted the colour green before the playoff match against Ireland (going weeks without a can of his beloved Sprite) and has spoken movingly about the importance of this tournament.
"It's a World Cup, it's in Africa, where many players in our team have their roots; it's in the country of Nelson Mandela, to whom the black community owes so much. All of that adds up," Evra stated.
But that does not change the fact he is a rookie at this level, and the French media are still concerned at the lack of natural leaders in the side.
'Still looking for a leader'
RMC radio recently hosted in a phone-in show entitled, "Who will emerge as the new leader of this France team?" while a recent edition of France Football magazine ran a feature headed, "Still looking for a leader," in which it asked whether Franck Ribery was ready to take charge.
It pointed out that though he has scored six decisive goals for France, his regular complaints when he was playing on the right wing, as opposed to his preferred left, showed his unwillingness to sacrifice himself for the team (unlike Thuram, who spent years playing at right-back, a position he hated.)
"I want to be the captain of France," Ribery said earlier this year. "I feel mature enough to wear the captain's armband now."
But the terrible headlines that accompanied Ribery's misdemeanours in the recent sex scandal that stunned France, and cost the player a move to Real Madrid, look set to count against him.
Of the other options, William Gallas showed how captaincy negatively affects his performances at Arsenal, while the fact that he is often playing alongside a new partner at the back does not help. He was reportedly upset to be overlooked as captain for the recent friendly matches.
Nicolas Anelka is one of the most experienced players but his quiet personality does not make him a natural choice. When Eric Abidal was captain against Turkey last year, he also played it down, saying, "What counts is the collective, it doesn't matter who wears the armband."
Henry expressed similar sentiments this week.
This is the key difference between this France side and the successful ones of the past: in 1998 the clear-cut leaders were Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc (now both successful coaches) while more recently, Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira have donned the mantle.
Throughout his six years in charge, Domenech has struggled with the historically hierarchical system of the French camp. During the glory years of 1998 and 2000, young players were not encouraged to speak up but rather to wait their turn. When Domenech tried to change this at Euro 2008, it flopped spectacularly. Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema reportedly upset older players with comments that showed a lack of respect, and a generation clash dogged them during the tournament.
Neither player has been called up this time around, and the implication is clear: with no natural leader in the group, Domenech is not prepared to risk any potential dissenter rocking the boat.
The problem he may discover is that having no trouble-makers does not necessarily mean there will be no trouble. It's only when France find themselves up against it in South Africa that we will know if Domenech's risky strategy has paid off.
Ben Lyttleton writes about French football for guardian.co.uk, the Sunday Telegraph, Irish Examiner, Champions magazine and the Sports Illustrated website. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.