Soccer: Lifting team from ruins a huge task

New France coach Laurent Blanc faces a huge task rebuilding the national side after its calamitous World Cup left a once-proud team in ruins.

Blanc replaces Raymond Domenech whose troubled six-year reign ended with the team split by rifts and infighting, derided by politicians, and rejected by fans.

Blanc was part of France's golden era, winning the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship two years later. He showed a winning touch with Bordeaux, guiding them to the league title and League Cup in the 2008-09 season.

Getting France back on track is the biggest challenge Blanc, 44, has faced.

He will take charge of his first game in a friendly away to Norway next month, followed by a Euro 2012 home qualifier against Belarus. More than the games, Blanc must decide which players deserve to play.

Speaking on French television after the French Football Federation appointed Blanc, council member and former France defender Lilian Thuram - Blanc's team-mate at the 1998 World Cup and at Euro 2000 - said defender Patrice Evra should never play for his country again.

Evra was stripped of the captaincy by Domenech after leading the players in a training strike.

Domenech and his France team disgraced themselves, when a shocked nation saw the team fall apart, politicians flew to South Africa to try to save face, and at home others demanded answers.

The problems started when sports newspaper L'Equipe published details of Nicolas Anelka's expletive-filled rant at Domenech the day after France lost 2-0 to Mexico in its second group match.

Anelka was sent home, and the next day the squad sat on their bus, refusing to train in protest at Anelka's dismissal. The bizarre images, which included one FFF official storming off and screaming before resigning on the spot, were beamed back home.

Evra argued with the fitness coach - Domenech intervened and then had to read a letter from his players explaining why they were on strike.

The players shunned Domenech and he dropped Evra and others for the final group game.

France lost 2-1 against South Africa and went out for the second consecutive tournament without winning a game, after its humiliating first-round exit from Euro 2008.

French sports minister Roselyne Bachelot reduced some players to tears as she reminded them how they had let the nation down.

Domenech said he tried "to convince them what they were doing was "an aberration, an imbecility, a stupidity without name," but never blamed himself for failing to control them. Domenech's last gesture at the Cup was his refusal to shake hands with South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.

Jean-Pierre Escalettes has resigned as FFF president and accepted his share of responsibility, saying he was "disappointed." Escalettes was criticised for keeping Domenech after Euro 2008.

France President Nicolas Sarkozy summoned striker Thierry Henry to give his version but Domenech still hasn't given a public explanation.

France Football magazine reported that Domenech had agreed with Henry, Evra and Eric Abidal not to criticise each other. defender William Gallas was reportedly an instigator of the training strike.

"Some very serious things happened, players took the French team hostage," former France defender Bixente Lizarazu told RTL radio station. "I think there are four or five of them who did it, who took 23 players straight into a wall."

Blanc has inherited an aging team totally bereft of spirit. He must decide whether the likes of Henry and Gallas, who both turn 33 next month, Evra, and Abidal should carry on playing.

Blanc scored 16 goals in 97 games for France, and his sending off in the 1998 World Cup semifinal against Croatia deprived him of a chance to play the biggest match of his career. Rather than sulk, he publicly backed his replacement Frank Leboeuf to do well against Brazil in the final, which France won 3-0.

Now Blanc's man-management skills which will be truly tested.

- AP

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