Domenech trusts in tried and tested
"You always improve with age," claimed Raymond Domenech, who, four years into his reign as France coach, hopes to take Les Bleus one step further this summer than they managed at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. "Experience is helpful, but one competition is never the same as the next. I won't know if this France team is better [than two years ago] until the competition has finished. At the beginning everyone thinks they're good, but it's how we fare against our opponents that will tell us if we are better or worse."
Experience is a quality Domenech has grown to appreciate in recent years and few teams at UEFA EURO 2008™ will be able to match the battle-hardened French in terms of pure know-how. Domenech, who coached France's Under-21s for eleven years before succeeding Jacques Santini, initially placed a heavy accent on youth, bringing in a host of fresh faces to compensate for the international retirements of Zinédine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and, soon after, Claude Makelele. The team struggled, however, and it was only after the veteran trio returned that a faltering World Cup qualifying campaign was salvaged.
Zidane, Thuram, Makelele, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry all starred at Germany 2006 and, with the exception of the retired former captain, they should all figure prominently again in Austria and Switzerland. Vieira and Henry have struggled for fitness and form this season, while Thuram and Makelele were picked only intermittently by their clubs, yet Domenech has total faith in his old hands, recognising their value both as players and as positive influences on the less experienced members of the squad.
Indeed, the emergence of an exceptional generation featuring Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Steve Mandanda and Bafétimbi Gomis offers an exciting blend of old and new, providing Domenech with a legitimate source for optimism and leaving him desperate for the competition to commence. "It's the same for all national team coaches," the 56-year-old told euro2008.com. "When you're at this stage you just want to get there and to start playing. Preparation is good but it's not the most interesting part. We need to get started now."
Despite the presence of so many familiar faces, Zidane's absence from a major tournament for the first time since 1996 is a source of concern to some. Domenech, though, is drawing encouragement from recent displays and remains confident for the future. "We qualified without Zidane," he pointed out. "When Michel Platini retired everybody wondered how French football would cope, but it coped. That's what happens in international football, players stop. But however good they are, the depth of talent in a country allows the team to continue. Platini and Zidane are part of history, now the page has turned."
Domenech's aim is to write a new chapter by guiding France to a third European crown following the home triumph of 1984 and the dramatic defeat of Italy in the UEFA EURO 2000™ final when David Trezeguet scored in extra time after Sylvain Wiltord's last-minute equaliser. "For me, this second victory was the most memorable," Domenech enthused. "I was commentating on the radio. The two other commentators were distraught but for half an hour I kept saying, 'we're going to equalise!' I felt like a player during this game, I felt like I was involved, and in the end [my prediction] was right. It was a fabulous game – and what a turnaround! When you win a game like that, you remember it for a long time."
Yet four years after the excitement of Rotterdam, France came down to earth in Portugal where they struggled before losing to Greece in the quarter-finals. The subdued performances left fans feeling empty, and Domenech is determined to avoid a similar fate next month. "The way I see it, we may lose because there will only be one winner, but we need to exit with some happiness, knowing we've given our all," explained the former Olympique Lyonnais defender. "We mustn't be frustrated at the end, as we were in 2004 when France didn't play to its full potential."
The 1998 world champions will need to hit their straps as early as the group stage after being pooled with Romania, the Netherlands and Italy. But while their meeting with the Azzurri on 17 June is sure to attract the most attention, Domenech warns the threat could come from any of the finalists. "There isn't a major difference between the players," he insisted. "It's a matter of which team gels over a short period. People say Greece's win [in 2004] was a surprise but it wasn't to me because their players all played for top-level clubs. The winner this time won't be a surprise either because there are 16 excellent teams." That may be true, yet with a handful of wily campaigners helping bring through a gifted new generation, Domenech will be confident of France's 2008 vintage emulating those of 1984 and 2000.