No, I was not France's public enemy No1," insists Raymond Domenech. "I was No2, behind Sarkozy." The quip is delivered with good humour because Domenech is feeling good these days, a lot better than in June 2010 when he returned from France's World Cup fiasco as a manager so vilified that the first thing his three-year-old son said to him was: "Dad, are you going to prison?"
Short of being led away to a cell in handcuffs, Domenech could hardly have suffered a more ignominious end to his reign as national manager. The French players' strike in South Africa, compounding abysmal performances by his team, triggered unprecedented scorn and ridicule for a manager who had already endured plenty. Although his six years with Les Bleus make him the third-longest-serving manager in their history and he was possibly only a Zinedine Zidane headbutt away from winning the 2006 World Cup, Domenech spent most of his time in charge being told he was out of his depth. And that, to put it bluntly, he was a jerk.
Doubts about his managerial acumen were aggravated by objections to his perceived personality – his proposal to his girlfriend live on air straight after France’s early elimination from Euro 2008, his apparent mockery of the Republic of Ireland after Thierry Henry’s infamous handball in 2009 and his decision to read out a statement to the media on behalf of dissenting players in South Africa were among the vignettes that framed the consensus that Domenech had a remarkable knack for saying the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time.
Universally derided villain
Now 64, he has not managed since being shown the door by France in 2010. But public opinion towards him has softened. He spent nearly three years licking his wounds before releasing an account of his time in charge of his country. His book, Tout Seul [ALL ALONE], became a bestseller in France and generated a degree of sympathy for a man who had gone from being a notoriously rugged centre-back as a player to an almost universally derided villain as a manager. He owned up to mistakes while shedding light on the context in which he made them, including unconscionable behaviour by people who were supposed to be on his side, notably an alarming number of spoilt players. He now enjoys working as a pundit on the French TV channel Ma Chaîne Sport.
“At book signings and so on people started off by saying: ‘Man, if you knew how much I hated you before reading your book,’” says Domenech. “I would always reply: ‘If you read my book, then you didn’t detest me as much as all that, you just needed to know it.’ Now it is clear how things really happened and responsibilities are assigned where they belong. I hesitated about writing the book as I knew it could mean diving back into battles and debates. But when I closed the door on the publisher’s office, I told myself I was closing the door on all that and moving on to something else. It was a liberating feeling. I unloaded everything, then I moved on. I was saying: ‘If you want to read the book, go ahead; and if you want to carry on criticising me, I don’t give a damn: it’s not my problem any more.”
Although loath to fend off criticisms that he has sought to fend off many times before, Domenech agrees to address the rumour that his team selection was influenced by astrology, with Robert Pires the chief victim. He said in his book – which, curiously, has been translated into Polish and Japanese but not English – that he omitted Pires from the 2006 squad because he felt the 30-year-old’s performances were on the wane and his attitude divisive, attempting to kill off rumours that the Arsenal player was left out because of a personal beef or his status as a Scorpio. Domenech dismisses such claims again but defends his interest in astrology.
‘Astrology has a mystical side’
“I’m a very inquisitive person,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in anything that can help understanding of how humans work. I studied all the techniques of communication, transactional analysis and so on. I also studied astrology and graphology. If I had said ‘I’m doing graphology’ no one would have picked up on it because it has a scientific side.
“But astrology has a mystical side and as soon as I mentioned it people started thinking I wear a wizard’s hat on my head and gaze into crystal balls. Astrology has a value in finding out about people’s character. Not in predicting the future or anything like that, but in working out people’s profile.
“When I started getting interested in astrology I read a book called Astrologie et Education which said that you’re not going to educate a Capricorn kid in the same way as you would educate a Gemini kid. One is quite organised, straight, rather introverted but very determined – these are just rules of thumb – and Geminis go in all directions so you can’t strap them into a chair and say ‘you have to do your work’ because they will do it naturally while roaming from one room to another. That struck me. I said to myself: ‘It’s true that you can’t manage different people in the same way so you have to try to figure out how best to proceed.’ So that’s all I used it for. I never used it for selecting players for France. Never.”
Domenech admits in his book that he made other errors, starting at Euro 2008 when, contrary to the media portrayals of him as pigheaded, he felt almost paralysed by doubts and ended up keeping Patrick Vieira in the squad even though he knew the midfielder would not be fit enough to play. But he also insists that much of the criticism of him was unfair, fuelled by a media that was hostile to him from the start because, he says, he stopped being as free and easy with information as he had been when in charge of the Under-21s.
After his very first match, a 1-1 home draw with Bosnia-Herzegovina, when he made each player stand up in the dressing room and analyse their own performances in front of the squad, Domenech was cast as a coach promoted beyond his ability. It did not help that the head of the French Football Federation, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, had not wanted to appoint him in the first place, preferring Laurent Blanc. During the years of condemnation Escalettes, in the words of Domenech, "supported me the way a rope supports a hanging man".
But Domenech is clear that what complicated his job more than media hostility and political jostling were the preciousness and delinquency of a generation of French players that he describes as generally self-obsessed, ignorant and brattish. His account of the antics of players such as Samir Nasri, Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribéry bred compassion for the former manager and spawned even more antipathy towards the players. It helps, in a way, that some French players have continued to make grubby headlines since Domenech's departure, with Nasri suspended for insulting journalists after France's feeble showing at Euro 2012, and Ribéry and Karim Benzema entangled in lurid off-field scandals.
“It’s distressing,” says Domenech. “The problem is still there. When Laurent Blanc picked his squad for Euro 2012, I said: ‘Let’s see what happens; if he succeeds, then I’ll say bravo, I must be an ignoramus who doesn’t understand anything.’ But we know what happened. And, in a sense, I suppose it did reassure me because it showed that I’m not the only one to blame. The way things work in the current generation makes things very complicated, especially in France.”
Why especially in France? “That’s the question. And the thing is, we don’t have an answer. Because the same players at big foreign clubs, in England or elsewhere, they don’t pose any problems. I think it is the weight of the clubs or the power of the FA that insists on certain standards so they refrain from doing things that they do with France.”
But why would France not have similar weight or power? "The solution is not obvious," says Domenech. "What weapons can we reach for to make the players pull in the right direction? Didier Deschamps is getting by a little better because he has the full backing of the federation and the media support him. And the Euros are coming, everyone wants to go, so things are a little calmer within the squad – although maybe not around it, as we have seen."
The Zidane debacle
Deschamps also has prestige in the eyes of the players because of his glorious career. So does Zidane, of course, which is one of the reasons why Domenech expects his former captain to succeed at Real Madrid. Zidane was inextricable from Domenech’s own greatest success as a manager, and his most agonising loss. The manager persuaded Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makélélé to come out of international retirement in 2005 to revive France’s stuttering World Cup qualification campaign and they did, helping the team to reach Germany and then go all the way to final, where they lost on penalties after Zidane was sent off for headbutting Marco Materazzi.
Domenech has questioned himself repeatedly over whether he could have pre-empted his playmaker’s outburst – and has even wondered whether Zidane, an essentially humble man, subconsciously wanted to end his career in disgrace because he felt uncomfortable with so much acclaim – but the former manager says he has finally let those unanswerable questions go: “I’ve turned the page. I don’t look back any more.”
He also says he no longer seeks to counter the claim that the manager had little to do with France's success in 2006, that it was all down to Zidane. "You can't escape that when you have a great player," says Domenech. "All Michel Hidalgo heard for this whole life was: 'Michel Platini ran that team'. Every manager who ever had Cruyff had to put up with people saying: 'Cruyff is in charge of this team, he takes the training sessions, does the team talks, everything'. You can't escape it. There's no point fighting against it."
He says his fondest memory as a manager is the 1-0 victory over Brazil in the 2006 quarter-final when, he believes, his plan of pressing the Brazilians early to force their forwards to do what they were most reluctant to do – defend – was the key to victory.
“That was the perfect match,” he says. “I still remember my team-talk. The staff and I had prepared everything and it all unfolded how we wanted. I even told the players before the game: ‘Just you watch, towards the end they will throw on all their attackers and that’s when you will know that you have won because they have run out of ideas.’ That’s exactly what happened [Brazil introduced Adriano and Robinho after Henry volleyed France in front in the second half]. I’m happy that I was the manager for that match. Everything was anticipated. I was like the co-driver in a racing car telling the driver in advance: ‘You’re coming up to a right turn at 120 mph’, and so on. It was exactly like that. And I’m proud of that.”
Pipped to Ireland job
Because of that moment, and a few others, he does not regret managing France, although he admits there are times he thinks he would have been happier if he had become manager of Ireland instead. He says he had the chance to do so in 2003, before he got the France job and long before the Henry handball. "I made it on to a three-man shortlist for the Ireland job and was interviewed for it in Paris," he says.
"In the end they decided to give it to an Irishman, Brian Kerr. But I would have adored it if I'd got it. I love Ireland and the Irish. I love the atmosphere there. I still remember when we played at Lansdowne Road in 2005 and we won thanks to a goal by Henry. The press had twisted some comments I'd made beforehand and after the game I had to walk through a load of supporters. I hesitated, thinking: 'Oh shit, this could be trouble,' but I pressed ahead. And everyone just patted me on the back saying: 'Well done, good game.' I couldn't believe it. It was like: 'OK, we played, we lost, let's have a drink together.' I love that attitude. It would have been great to have been Ireland manager. I am always upset when they don't make it to a major tournament."
Even in 2009, when Ireland’s elimination following Henry’s handball meant Domenech’s France went to the World Cup instead? “Yes, I was disappointed for them. They put in an extraordinary performance in Paris but don’t forget that we should have won 2-0 or 3-0 in the first leg so there was a sporting balance that was logical.
“But I’m always upset when Ireland don’t make it to a big tournaments because they bring a brilliant atmosphere. When I went to the World Cup in 1994 I made sure I went to wherever the Irish fans were because there was always a drink and a good vibe.” So can Irish fans expect to have the pleasure of mingling with Domenech in France this summer?
“I hope so,” says the Frenchman. “Because they can get drunk and stay happy. And that’s a good thing because they’re in a hellish group. Mind you, that will suit them. They love a battle.”
‘I needed to get away from it all’
Domenech envisages a fun summer but he is not ruling out a return to the dugout. He has had job offers, including from a couple of African countries, but nothing that has truly captivated him. A Premier League post could excite him. “I haven’t retired,” he says. “I have had contacts and discussions and there were some times where all I had to do was say ‘yes’ to become a manager again. But I didn’t really want to. I needed to get away from it all, do something else. But I’m still in football.
“I haven’t had a really special offer. To change the lifestyle that I have now it would have to be something that really makes me tingle completely. A club in London would suit me nicely. I don’t want to do something just to earn a little money, otherwise I’d already have accepted offers, but I want something different, full of emotions, something that would make me tingle.”
Ideally, of course, the emotions would all be positive this time.