French renaissance is Domenech's masterpiece
HAMELIN, Germany, July 3: France have suddenly woken up from a six-year nightmare and owe their World Cup progress to the faith of the coach who kept saying his ageing team could shine in Germany.
Les Bleus, who had struggled since winning the European Championship in 2000 two years after their World Cup triumph, surprised everybody but Raymond Domenech by knocking out Brazil 1-0 with a classy display on Saturday to reach the last four.
''We are satisfied but not surprised,'' Domenech said after les Bleus, inspired by a rejuvenated Zinedine Zidane, played their best match in years.
''You reap what you sow,'' added the grey-haired 54-year-old with the bushy eyebrows, who took over from Jacques Santini in the wake of France's quarter-final exit from Euro 2004.
''If the seeds are right and you work hard enough, the harvest will be good,'' added the coach, now looking forward to a semi-final against Portugal on Wednesday in Munich.
France, who had looked ordinary for most of the past six years, made a sluggish start to the finals and seemed headed for another fiasco after being eliminated from the 2002 World Cup finals without a win or a goal at the group stage.
Fears that the ghosts of four years ago might come back to haunt them were one of the reasons why the France players looked nervous at first, Domenech said.
''I did feel it was in the back of their minds,'' he said. ''They did not want to go through that sort of experience again.
''After the victory over Togo (for a place in the second round), some of the players actually said that they could forget about South Korea at last.''
WINNING MACHINE Then came a convincing 3-1 win over Spain followed by a masterful performance against Brazil that was reminiscent of the times when France were the ultimate winning machine.
''It did not happen overnight,'' Domenech said. ''I knew what the players were capable of and I noticed they were improving every match.'' Domenech, an uncompromising character not interested in making himself popular, had experimented since taking charge two years ago.
The games with Spain and Brazil marked the first time he had picked the same lineup for two successive matches.
''I'm glad you noticed that,'' he said after eventually finding the right formula, a compact formation with Zidane in a playmaking role and Thierry Henry on his own up front.
A much better atmosphere, after internal squabbling marred the 2002 campaign, the desire of several ageing players to end their careers on a high and the rise of top prospect Franck Ribery are other reasons for France's unexpected revival.
More than any of that, however, the decisive factor against Brazil was that 34-year-old Zidane, who will retire after the finals and realises every match here could be his last, has recaptured his brilliant best with perfect timing.
That, too, surprised many, but not Domenech.
''We knew we could count on him,'' the coach said of his captain.