Domenech's rallying call falls flat

 

“IT WAS bad from a sporting point of view and, maybe even worse, it portrayed a terrible image of the national team.” These were the words of French Football Federation (FFF) president Jean-Pierre Escalettes after Les Bleus had crashed out of Euro 2008 in miserable fashion.

He had just announced that much-maligned coach Raymond Domenech would be keeping his job, but only under the following conditions: that he improve his disastrous communication skills, that he participate fully in repairing the team’s broken image, and that his side secure at least five points from their first three World Cup qualifiers.

France took four points from those games. Domenech has remained as surly, sarcastic and provocative as ever, and the team’s image has sunk to such a low level that fans have taken to cheering opposition passes at recent matches. Yet somehow the ex-Lyon boss has held on to his position.

The play-off against the Republic of Ireland represents an ideal opportunity for France and Domenech to make a fresh start. A passionate message from the coach, some strong words from senior players, and two quality performances could unite a nation once again behind the national team and spark a new wave of support and optimism.

On Tuesday, France held their first press conference at Clairefontaine ahead of Saturday’s game. Around 100 journalists attended, hoping to hear Domenech’s views on his tactical duel with Giovanni Trapattoni, as well as speaking to one or two key players. Perhaps William Gallas would be happy to evoke his recent Premier League tussles with Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle, or would Nicolas Anelka talk of his determination to play in a World Cup for the first time?

In fact, none of that happened. The players made available to the press were Julien Escude, Alou Diarra and Aly Cissokho – all back-up players – while Domenech himself was nowhere to be seen. Journalists invariably went home disappointed, precious little footage of the press conferences was shown on French television yesterday, and influential sports daily L’Equipe has been quick to complain about the perceived lack of co-operation.

“New start? What new start?” read the headline on page four, under which journalist Regis Testelin argued no effort had been made to get the public onside. “It felt just like the day before the France-Austria dead rubber [in October]: there was no fervour, no spirit, no message from the coach or players, and no stance was taken,” Testelin wrote.

“The crucial nature of the Dublin rendezvous is clearly not sufficient to alter the national team’s communication strategy.”

Domenech, meanwhile, was accused of “ducking out of the exercise that infuriates him the most”. Rather than gracing the media with his presence, the 57-year-old preferred to release a video on the FFF website voicing some hollow-sounding words on the importance of the next games. “The players want to go to the World Cup,” Domenech declared. “If they’re not motivated and prepared, if they don’t have the desire . . . well, I’m sorry, there is nothing to add. They’re ready. There’s no point putting them under extra pressure.”

As rallying calls go, Domenech’s effort leaves plenty to be desired.

That the majority in France are desperate to see the back of Domenech is nothing new. In recent weeks, however, Domenech’s boss Escalettes has also been coming under fire. The FFF chief yesterday refused to confirm he would stand down should Ireland prevail. “We’ll see,” Escalettes said. “I’d consider it a failure. But I’m determined and resolutely optimistic. We have to make it.”