In Group G, gunning for the French favoriteIn sports, the proverbial teams that no one wants to play in a short tournament are often the ones with chips on their shoulder to go along with the requisite talent. And entering the 2006 World Cup, the 1998 champions, France, are exactly that.
The world’s seventh-ranked team, grouped with Korea, Togo and Switzerland in Group G of the World Cup round-robin phase, is loaded with talent across the board, and it has a lethal combination of young stars on the rise and veterans with something to prove ― to prove that their glory days of late 1990s weren’t a fluke and that they’ve still got game and can hang with the big boys.
But to make that swagger justified, the French athletes must make sure that they’ve gotten over their nightmarish performance at the last World Cup. For soccer fans here in 2002, almost as memorable as the Korean team’s semifinal berth was France’s ignominious elimination in the round-robin phase, during which the defending World Cup and European Championship winners were held scoreless in three matches, against Senegal, Uruguay, and Denmark. That can result in quite a big chip to carry around.
The French squad is favored to finish at the top of its group this year, but then again it was expected to finish atop its Group A four years ago.
So what can we expect from the boys of Les Bleus this time around?
On paper, this squad appears as talented as any other team in the tournament. It includes most of the key players from the last two World Cups, such as strikers Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, midfielders Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira and defender Lilian Thuram.
Florent Malouda, a versatile 25-year-old, is a youngster counted on to provide offense from the left side. Henry, Trezeguet and Vieira, all in their late 20s, are in their prime playing years. Zidane, the 33-year-old soccer legend who came out of retirement to play in Germany, said recently he would retire for good after this World Cup, and said he wanted to close out his illustrious career at the top. Thuram and Claude Makelele, a defensive midfielder, are two more un-retirees embarking on a swan-song mission.
In 50 A-matches since the end of the 2002 World Cup, France has lost only three, a telling indicator of French consistency.
So what can Korea do to challenge and perhaps even whip the French, seemingly a team without a weakness?
First, the Koreans must use their speed and exploit France’s relatively slow-footed transition game. Because Zidane has lost a step or two getting back on defense compared to his abilities in his younger days, France’s defensive backs are often forced to move up toward the half line to cover the midfield, which would give quicker forwards some space to attack through either side of the pitch.
French defenders are all more than 6 feet tall, but as a group they don’t boast a lot of agility. Individual defenders have done well in one-on-one situations, but they have had some trouble on offense, relying on a quick, short passing game.
So it may not be a bad idea for Korean players to try to run the French ragged for 90 minutes.
Les Bleus enter the World Cup with a question mark in goal. Gregory Coupet will start in the net ahead of the veteran Fabien Barthez, who played with the 1998 World Cup champions and the Euro 2000 championship squad. Coupet was a backup in those events as well as in the 2002 World Cup, and even though he is 33 years old, his international resume is thin.
To his credit, Coupet has only allowed one goal in six A-matches this year. But the World Cup is a different beast, and Korea would do well to try to rattle Coupet early on in the game.
In the last World Cup, Korea beat, in succession, Portugal, Italy and Spain. Of course, there were many other variables that affected the outcomes of those matches, including partisan fans, but fans here still have dreams of knocking off the group’s 800-pound gorilla.
That is not to say France would succumb easily, but stranger things have happened before in soccer, and the delicious dreams here go on.
by Yoo Jee-ho