By Michael King
At the international level, 18 games is an eternity. With friendlies scattered sparingly throughout the soccer season and major tournaments only once every few years, opportunities for international success can be elusive.
And for the French Football Federation, that’s exactly the point.
The organization suspended maligned striker Nicolas Anelka, 31, for precisely that length Tuesday afternoon, effectively ending his international career.
The FFF also suspended former captain Patrice Evra for five games and handed down lesser bans to Franck Ribery and Jeremy Toulalan for their roles in the team’s off-the-field antics during June’s World Cup.
The lengthy suspensions reflect how much the French hate to be embarrassed – especially on the international scene. Ultimately, the action is a vain attempt to move on from the World Cup and silence the critics of Les Bleus.
New coach Laurent Blanc wielded the first blow toward French dysfunction when he suspended the entire World Cup squad from last Wednesday’s friendly against Norway. Telling a group of petulant soccer players that they won’t be required to leave their club team, travel to Scandinavia on a week night, and play in a meaningless game seems far less than a fitting punishment.
But the suspensions afforded Blanc a more significant opportunity: give the next generation of French soccer players a chance at the top international level. The former Bordeaux boss put together a squad of mostly young, experienced players – many of whom had never played together.
But the result was worth the experiment. The young squad’s speed and intensity were equally impressive and unexpected.
No, the distribution certainly wasn’t precise; nor was the possession as lengthy and effective as one would expect against any nation located above the North Sea. However, the pace and fervor of the young squad was a striking – and welcome – contrast from the recent grind-it-out French sides.
Disgraced former coach Raymond Domenech left so many young and promising players off his World Cup contingent – Samir Nasri, Rod Fanni, Loic Remy and Charles N’Zogbia just to name a few – so there is plenty of talent not marred by the embarrassment in South Africa.
Blanc’s first squad assembled last week resembled one of France’s most recently successful teams; the 2004 Under-17 European champions. That group defeated the likes of budding Spanish World Cup heroes Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique to win the trophy.
Perhaps even more promising is France’s victory in the Under-19 European championship last month, again dispatching Spain in the final. Forwards Antoine Griezmann and Gael Kakuta – the former Lens winger at the center of Chelsea’s recent transfer scandal – both had strong tournaments and should expect a call-up to the top squad very soon.
Clearly, there’s plenty of soccer talent in L’Hexagone to be derived from these two crops alone.
Now Blanc is left with the challenge of finding the right balance of youth and experience that is a critical aspect of international success. He doesn’t want to field the same team of geriatrics that produced only one goal and uninspiring soccer in South Africa. Nor does he want a team of overeager tyros struggling to maintain possession and defend consistently.
With that type of performance, despite the end result being less than desirable, it’s hard to imagine Blanc reinstating many of the World Cup members he suspended against Norway.
However, a few merit strong consideration.
Though the French are blessed with several talented goalkeepers, the best is undoubtedly Hugo Lloris of Olympique Lyon. Even a cursory observation of his performance against Real Madrid in the last year’s Champions League knock-out stage reveals how he earned the nickname Saint Lloris.
Among the others, Evra has a great deal to offer as perhaps the most offensive-minded among all of France’s talented fullbacks. But with the five-game suspension, Blanc will be left will a difficult choice to reinstate Evra. Once left-back is eligible to return, France could be well on its way to Euro 2012 qualification with substantial strides made in squad cohesion.
The rest of the defense will need to be rebuilt, as shoddy defending doomed the French on many recent occasions – likely even more a priority for Blanc since he spent his playing days clearing the ball from the backline.
Among the other suspended players, Ribery’s reinstatement retains the most logic. His attacking ability on either midfield flank cannot be denied when healthy.
Finally, Anelka – the individual who was the source of the team’s World Cup misbehavior – certainly won’t be missed. The ability he’s shown at the club level with Chelsea, specifically his 19 goals as the 2008-09 English Premier League’s leading scorer, hasn’t found its way to the international level. Without Chelsea’s efficient distribution and pairing with world-class striker Didier Drogba, Anelka’s play for Les Bleus has mirrored that of the team – simply average.
Despite all the young talent, France’s best hope lies with Blanc. The coach told the media multiple times, that if the team fails to qualify for Euro 2012, he will quit. Unlike Domenech, Blanc would rather step aside than cling to a job where he can’t find success.
Fortunately, there’s nothing in Blanc’s pedigree that indicates he won’t succeed. A winner as a player with Manchester United and Marseille and Les Bleus in the late 90s, and as a coach guiding Bordeaux to an improbable Ligue 1 title two seasons ago, he understands how to win as well as anyone.
Qualifying for Euro 2012 begins in earnest on Sept. 3 with a tie against Belarus at the Stade de France. But more substantially, it will mark the formal beginning of Blanc’s quest to deliver Les Bleus from their self-imposed nadir.
Michael King is a contributing writer for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at email@example.com.