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Steadfast Domenech meets target against all odds

Written by: Staff

HAMELIN, Germany, July 7 (Reuters) Raymond Domenech had underlined the date of the World Cup final in his diary months ago, when nobody but himself believed his ageing troops could get there.

''July 9'', the stubborn France coach, whose team will challenge Italy in the title match on that date in Berlin, had kept repeating when asked for his target in the tournament.

''It's wasn't obvious for anybody but for me it was,'' the 54-year-old with the bushy eyebrows said after his famous answer became a reality.

''Somebody had to believe we could do it. That's my job, that's what I'm paid for.'' It has been a rocky road to the final, not to only for France, who suddenly woke up from a long nightmare to rediscover their winning ways, but also for the coach himself.

An uncompromising character not interested in making himself popular, Domenech has had a difficult relationship with the media since he took over from Jacques Santini after France's quarter-final exit from Euro 2004.

Only now is he reading hard-earned positive headlines.

''This is not a personal revenge,'' he said. ''I perfectly realise that what I've done for the last two years was sometimes difficult to understand. I just did what I felt was the best for the team.'' Domenech, who has won nothing but a second division title in over 2O years in coaching, first said he wanted to rebuild the team around new players.

However, last year, with France struggling to qualify for the finals in Germany, he persuaded three members of the old guard, Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele, to return to the national fold.

UNEXPECTED REVIVAL The three looked their age at first before rising to the occasion and inspiring the 1998 champions' unexpected revival.

''What the elder players have brought us is their winning mentality, the calm belief that you can make it even when everybody says you can't,'' said Domenech, offering one of the keys to the team's resurgence.

In his playing days, Domenech was not exactly glamorous but nobody could question his dedication.

One of the roughest defenders in French soccer, his reputation was forged in his first match as a 16-year-old for Olympique Lyon, when he broke an opponent's leg in a tackle.

One way or another, he has not looked back since.

Domenech, of course, was not on the pitch and it was because Zidane and company pulled out all their old tricks that France advanced to their second World Cup final.

What the coach did do is make a bunch of 30-somethings past their prime believe they could book the ultimate farewell party if they forgot about their egos to serve the team.

His mission is not quite over yet but, whatever happens in Sunday's final, Domenech can justifiably feel proud of himself.

''I thank you for still being here,'' he told reporters with a wry smile after France qualified for the only game that counts.

''Before reaching the final we couldn't afford to dream. Now we can''.

Reuters AY GC1759

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