French centre-forward Olivier Giroud might well be dreading his country’s opening fixture against England on Monday night. While some of Roy Hodgson’s debutants will, like Eddy Murphy’s street punk-turned-stockbroker in Trading Places, be regarding their new status with a kind of nonplussed glee, Giroud approaches the Euros straining under the weight of recent history. Having scored 21 goals in Montpellier’s unexpectedly victorious Ligue 1 campaign, he arrives in Ukraine as the latest in a long(ish) list of French attackers tipped to astonish at the finals of an international competition. His concern will be to buck the trend set by Stephane Guivarc’h in 1998, Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema in 2008 and most recently Yoann Gourcuff in 2010. All four have proved a serious let-down for Les Bleus at a European Championship or World Cup.
One wonders why France have, of late, stood out in their ability to field players whose performances expose a huge gap between expectation and competitive reality. Some might say that the answer lies in the comparatively low standard of Ligue 1, arguing that it does not provide an adequate test for attackers soon to be tasked with outwitting top-level international defences. Others will point out, with some justification, that each case deserves to be taken on its own merits. Guivarc’h, perhaps, was little more than a foil for the ’98 side’s extravagantly talented midfield, while Gourcuff was a victim of both immature behaviour from senior players and Raymond Domenech’s unique astrological spin on man-management. Nevertheless, it seems that the French fall guy has become a stock character, a stereotype that Giroud is presumably wary of living up to.
As French teams go, Laurent Blanc’s outfit are perhaps less dependent on big names and big promises than their predecessors. Ribéry and Benzema, who have both recovered from their own dire tournaments, are recognised stars now, but Blanc will rely equally on solid performances from the likes of Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye. With little pre-departure fanfare, the pressure may not be so great on Giroud. There’s also the possibility that he’s found his feet at exactly the right time: prior to Montpellier, he’d bounced between the clubs who seem to inhabit an indeterminate space between Ligues 1 and 2, and few would have expected him to play a key role at the Euros had they been asked last summer. Stealth can be a huge advantage – David Platt’s low-key reputation may well have been what made the Belgian defenders mark him so dreadfully in Bologna in 1990 – and it’s a factor Giroud will have on his side to some degree.
All this, however, taps into a wider issue. Despite their improbable runners-up finish in the 2006 World Cup, France post-2000 have gradually fallen victim to a set of self-fulfilling prophecies similar to those which beset England. Their teams seem to take to the field belaboured with the anxiety that they will somehow disappoint – to recall TK’s excellent formulation from yesterday, they too have aspects of Schrödinger’s team about them. With England, tournament failure seems to resemble seventies farce: in spite of Hoddle/ Keegan/ Eriksson/ Capello’s best-laid plans, there’s always an overseen chink which makes the structure collapse, leaving the manager looking like Frank Spencer or Basil Fawlty. France, by contrast, are coloured with the doominess of Émile Zola‘s Rougon-Macquart cycle. There’s an accumulation of bad blood which seeps into successive generations, invariably devastating – or at least scarring – the young protagonist who attempts to salve the hereditary trauma. Bullied and frozen out by his colleagues in 2010, Gourcuff resembled Étienne Lantier, a young agitator who arguably knew more than was good for him and let his purist aspirations muddy his relationships. Blanc more than anyone has done his best to make sure Giroud lines up against England with a blank slate in terms of the mistakes of the last twelve years, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll make the most of it.
Posted by Joe Kennedy