The Guillotine Man: Domenech deserves our praise for his staying-power if little else

(by Paul Morrissey)

(France are 1/4 to beat the Irish in the playoffs, and 20/1 to win the 2010 World Cup.)

“If the guillotine was still around, I’d have gone under it by now.” – Raymond Domenech.

***

He didn’t jump. They didn’t sack him, and if France can overcome Ireland and qualify for South Africa he’ll almost certainly, incredibly, be the man leading them there. Yet there’s just something so unlovable about the man isn’t there?

Throughout his tenure in charge of Les Bleus Domenech has been accused for his lack of leadership, having a difficult personality, his astrology-inspired selections and non-selections, his complete indifference of his players towards him, and overall displaying man management skills to compete with Roy Keane’s. Time wasting against the Faroes? We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one… just.

To be fair to Domenech though, he’s had the unenviable task of taking over in the wake of the team’s limp elimination from Euro 2004.

Following the retirements of Zizou, Makelele and Thuram, the quality and pedigree at Raymond’s disposal was severely depleted; players like Gourcouff and Benzema, and even Ribery, were not yet prepared for the international step.

They stumbled their way through qualification for the 2006 World Cup, until the heroic return of Les Trois Mousquetaires (the recently retired trio above), eventually qualified and should have gone on to win that tournament. It is widely accepted however, that the old guard gradually took control of the dressing room during the tournament, with Domenech effectively relegated to naming a team that picked itself. He can’t have become too bored during team talks however; he surely lent fellow artist Vikash Dhorasso a hand with the editing of his bizarre film about the lonely life of the substitute. (Dhorasso was incidentally selected ahead of Ludo Giuly, who had just won the Spanish League and Champions League double with Barcelona. A borderline sackable offence in itself.)

Post 2006 and the old guard bade a final adieu. Enter Ribery, Benzema and Nasri, among others. The new generation, backed by a moody Henry, a creaking Thuram and a by now severely jaded Makelele, failed to inspire during qualification.

They then pathetically crashed out of Euro 2008 without so much as a whimper, and when Raymond had the audacity to propose to his partner Estelle Denis in the immediate aftermath (which she famously rejected), it was considered a formality before the amateur astrologer was summoned to Le Federation headquarters and duly sacked. Au contraire. They took the baffling decision to keep him on for one more tournament qualification, citing the age profile and potential of the team, and that the man in charge was only half way through his mission.

The more likely explanation was stubbornness – replacing him with national hero Didier Deschamps would have appeared like a submission to the lobbying by the 98/00 generation, who still carry significant clout in French football circles.

Ever since Domenech has lived every breathing moment of this qualification on a perpetual tightrope, always seemingly just a draw or a goal away from being ousted. Home games became advantageous to the opposition such was the lack of support from the home crowds, with the fans generally more interested in protesting over Domenech’s continued management of the national team. The hysteria reached its zenith in the build up to the “must win” game away to Romania, with his buddies at the Federation no longer refuting the claims.

The comeback from 2-0 to secure a draw in that match proved a surprising turning point though, and the media as well as the public had a sudden change of heart, or maybe they were just worn out from the incessant blood baying of the previous 14 months.

“Sometimes you forget the man is a human being,” Titi Henry told the media afterwards.

They have performed solidly since then without ever managing to dispel the criticism. Complaints about a blatant lack of style, as well as an insistence on fielding two anchor men in midfield, usually Lassana Diarra and Jeremy Toulalan, appear justified. Particularly when said pairing is fielded at home to Lithuania.

In the much maligned man’s defence, the current crop’s commitment and identity has been reasonably questioned. There is a subconscious acknowledgment that the team’s current Afro/Caribbean ethnic makeup is somewhat at odds with the wider public outside of Paris; that perhaps some of the players aren’t “French” enough. This of course goes deeper than man management and tactics. The Federation attempted all too tangibly to address this identity crisis with a hasty Adidas campaign, in which the players recited a poem about the pride they take in wearing the jersey. (I don’t wear the jersey, it wears me).

La Marseillaise is regularly sung with all the gusto of a detention-bound schoolboy, and attendances and interest in the team have steadily been on the wane since the successive retirements of the last generation.

If they are to qualify for South Africa via the play-offs next month, the French team will have qualified for three consecutive tournaments under Domenech’s management, a feat last achieved by 1984 European champion Michel Hidalgo, but he won’t be hanging around the mixed zone expecting any praise or congratulations. He knows he´s overstayed his welcome.

Every defeat of his reign has been down to him, every victory down to the players.

If they qualify for the World Cup next June, re-energise squad moral and rediscover some Gallic flair, it will probably still be in spite of him rather than thanks to him. Actually, definitely in spite of him. Bon chance Raymond.