Monday, 18 November 2013

Spectre of ’93 hangs over France

French coach Didier Deschamps
For France, it can surely never be as brutal as the disaster of November 17, 1993. With just one second of the 90 minutes remaining at the Parc des Princes that night, France were drawing 1-1 with Bulgaria and were heading to the World Cup in the United States.
But that was when Emil Kostadinov's crisp right-footed shot from a tight angle beat goalkeeper Bernard Lama high at his near post. That moment changed everything. Bulgaria went to the World Cup and Gerard Houllier's France stayed at home. It was a failure that marked a generation.
This weekend marked the 20th anniversary of that defeat and of France's last failure to qualify for a major tournament finals. Les Bleus rebuilt and reached the semi-finals of Euro '96 before conquering the world on home soil in 1998 and winning Euro 2000.
But since then, with the exception of 2006, when Zinedine Zidane came out of international retirement to help France to the World Cup final in Germany, France have been in decline. Now that decline looks set to culminate in them missing out on a place in Brazil next June, two decades after that gut-wrenching loss to the Bulgarians.
Houllier famously blamed the Bulgaria defeat on David Ginola, who gave away possession in the build-up to Kostadinov's goal, and the scars of that night have never fully healed for them. Meanwhile, Didier Deschamps recovered from that heartache to lift the World Cup at the Stade de France and has since enjoyed considerable success as a coach at club level. However, his time in charge of Les Bleus has been a trying one.
On Friday, his side were outfought by Ukraine in the cold and unwelcoming environment of Kiev's Olympic Stadium. Franck Ribery was marked out of the game and second-half goals from Roman Zozulia and Andriy Yarmolenko gave Ukraine a 2-0 win that makes them massive favourites to advance to Brazil ahead of Tuesday's second leg.
After all, Ukraine have not conceded more than once in any game since losing 2-0 to France during the group stage of Euro 2012 in Donetsk. But they demonstrated on Friday that they are now a very different side.
Since the Ukrainian Football Federation (FFU) appointed Mikhail Fomenko as coach at the end of last year, their form has been impressive. They are unbeaten in 12 games and have not conceded in eight matches. Perhaps if Fomenko had been in charge right from the beginning of the World Cup qualifying campaign they might have pipped England to first spot in Group H. And to think that the FFU almost gave the job to Harry Redknapp instead.
Back at their Clairefontaine training base after the draining trip to Kiev, the French squad and Deschamps have been in defiant mood ahead of the second leg, in which changes will be made to the home team, notably in defence.
With Laurent Koscielny suspended and Eric Abidal a contender to be dropped, Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho could both come into the side. Further forward, a return to the team for Mathieu Valbuena at the expense of Samir Nasri seems probable.
"I am ready to die on the pitch. That is a big word to use, but I am full of hope and full of anger too. I hope to transform that into positive energy," said Olivier Giroud on Sunday, before declaring: "If we get through, and we will get through, it will be extraordinary."
"For the players to believe, the first person who must believe is me," added Deschamps. "The possibility to change everything is real. It doesn't matter if it's small, medium or large. It is there."
However, few members of the public or the local media really believe in the team's chances. To them, a repeat of 1993 is likely and this time the shock will be less brutal. And if France do fall, fingers will be pointed at Deschamps, who has managed just seven wins in 17 games in charge of Les Bleus.
Whether France win or lose on Tuesday, it is hard to think of a better choice to take them into Euro 2016 on home soil, but the man himself was clear when he arrived, saying he would not hang around if he failed at his first task.
"My first mission is to get to the World Cup. If that ends in failure, I will leave of my own accord. It would make no sense to carry on," he said back in July 2012.

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