In defence of Raymond Domenech
Unpopular coach has led France to 3 major tournaments
Given the negative reaction that Raymond Domenech inspires in his own country, it is a sobering thought that he has made history as coach of France's national team.
After his team beat Ireland in their disputed World Cup playoff last November, he became the first coach to qualify Les Bleus for three consecutive major tournaments. If that doesn't sound too impressive, well, he was already the only person to have qualified them for two successive competitions.
It's easy to criticize a coach who makes football comparisons with astrology and poker, who has never won a major trophy in his coaching career and who proposed to his girlfriend, TV presenter Estelle Denis, live on television after France's humiliating Euro 2008 exit.
But he is also the man who guided France to the 2006 World Cup final, who won support from his players for instigating a friendly in Martinique and who is not afraid to take a risk in picking young players, as the successes of Franck Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff prove.
Such is his status as a national laughing-stock that he has even had to go to French games in disguise to prevent abuse. And yet his record since taking over in 2004 stands up to scrutiny: 74 matches, with 41 victories and only 11 defeats. When the pressure was on four years ago in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, he talked Lilian Thuram out of international retirement and the defender returned, along with Claude Makelele and Zinedine Zidane, to help the team. Thuram credited Domenech with convincing him to come back.
The team spirit for that tournament took a huge boost when Domenech organized the friendly against Costa Rica in Martinique, the first time the team had ever played a match in the French West Indies.
Thuram and teammates Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and William Gallas, all of whom have family there, appreciated the fixture that was seen as a turning point for the mood in the camp.
Anelka, who will be playing in his first World Cup in South Africa after a succession of fall-outs with previous France bosses, has stood up for Domenech: "He is the only national manager with whom I can talk and I have known several — so even if people are angry with him, I appreciate him."
France's first game at the 2006 World Cup was also the first time that Ribery started a match for Les Bleus: after three friendly appearances (against Mexico, Denmark and China), Domenech threw him in and the winger, then 22, repaid his faith in him. Last month he gave Mathieu Valbuena a debut, he scored and could be the Ribery of this summer.
If the perception that Zidane was running the team during the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008 was seen definitively as Domenech's failure. The successful team that won the 1998 World Cup queued up to criticize the coach.
"The least that should happen is that a new coach comes in," said Bixente Lizarazu. Even Domenech's own players stuck the boot in.
"Domenech plays around with people, but if you do that you end up falling flat on your face," said goalkeeper Gregory Coupet.
Domenech kept his job — amid suggestions that French FA boss Jean-Pierre Escalettes did not want to shake up the federation in a way that any new coach would have demanded — but the critics went for him as France struggled in their World Cup qualifiers.
"I wouldn't have done a single thing the same as that man," said Christophe Dugarry. "He is a total disgrace."
France's foremost pundit, Jean-Michel Larque, published a book claiming Domenech had embarrassed the whole country, and even forced amateurs to give up the game.
"The image of the side today is catastrophic and there's no logic in the way he works," wrote Larque, citing the example of France's World Cup qualifier against Romania, when he switched the left-to-right forward trident of Henry-Anelka-Ribery to Ribery-Henry-Anelka, leaving all three forwards unhappy.
'That's not an answer'
Domenech seems to revel in making life harder for himself. In an interview with one of his former players, Vikash Dhorasoo, in So Foot magazine, the coach was asked about his favoured style of play.
"What's that question supposed to mean?" said Domenech.
"How do you want your team to play? With a sweeper, playing counter-attack, or with a number ten?"
"My style of play is to win games."
"That's not an answer," replied the frustrated Dhorasoo.
But even when Domenech does get things right, he rarely gets the recognition: just as with Ribery, he gave Gourcuff a tough full debut in the qualifier against Serbia in September 2008 and was rewarded when the playmaker set up Anelka's winner. Buoyed by the confidence from that performance, Gourcuff went on to inspire Bordeaux to the 2009 league title and was a runaway winner of France's Player of the Year. But at the time, nobody thought he was ready to be selected.
When one French journalist congratulated Domenech on his decision to pick Gourcuff after the game, the coach jumped on it.
"Say it again, and say it louder! Thanks, really, thanks very much."
Those are the words of a man who is not used to compliments. Domenech did the same with Andre-Pierre Gignac: the Toulouse forward scored four goals in six qualifiers. While many would have persisted with the under-performing Benzema, Domenech made another brave decision, and got it right.
His latest big call concerns the replacement of Lassana Diarra as one of the holding midfielders. Instead of Bordeaux captain Alou Diarra, who has been back-up to 'Lass' throughout qualifying, Domenech looks set to go with Abou Diaby, who has only won two caps.
While Domenech is clearly not the crazy lunatic some paint him out to be, he is definitely a man who is less himself than he was when he first took the job six years ago.
"At the beginning I tried to be myself, but I realised it wasn't possible because you can no longer say what you really think. It's a shame. I feel that people in general and the media don't understand me. Any comments I make become a state affair. I've become more wary and more reserved. This job has taught me two things: to shut up and when I do speak, to speak more slowly."
As for his love of amateur dramatics, that is on hold until he leaves his job, which will be once France is out of the tournament. As one French reporter told me: "One of the best things about Domenech is that he has made press conferences a lot of fun. He has also united the fans against him, which takes pressure off the players."
We'll miss Domenech when he's gone.
"I still love the theatre, but these days I have to content myself with some improvisation and some one-man shows at my press conferences," he once dead-panned. "It's another sort of human comedy."
His successor, Laurent Blanc, won't be half as entertaining.
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.