The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. After dominating the continent and the wider world from their power base in Western Europe the French got a bit over-confident on a visit to the distant East and, despite a fearsome reputation, came home in humiliating disarray. The 2002 squad should have had some Tchaikovsky on their personal stereos.
Fast forward to today and we see Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele fresh out of international retirement looking to conquer the world one last time with their old comrades. There are longstanding rumours that Thierry Henry and Zizou don’t get on which are in no way fuelled by the fact that none of Henry’s 30 plus international goals has benefited from a Zidane assist. Some French critics claim coach Domenech leaves out anyone who’s ever disagreed with him. Others say Zidane picks the squad anyway. We know for sure that excellent keeper Gregory Coupet had to be persuaded back to the camp after a row over allegedly preferential treatment for recently re-instated number 1 Fabien Barthez. The defence, though ageing, is still something to be reckoned with as it proved in qualifying. Up front the pickings have been slimmer and French supporters who booed the recent 1-0 win over Mexico hope that some new blood will be given a chance before it’s too late. Quality and a lack of hype will see the French team through this group. Egos and internal feuding will see it self-destruct before it can regain the big prize.
Bizarrely the French have been drawn against a team they failed to beat twice in qualifying. The Swiss drew the majority of their games before scrapping past Turkey on away goals in the playoffs. There’s likely to be scoring at both ends in all their matches, but progression will depend on their ability to force a victory rather than battling to defend a point.
South Korea, semi-finalists on home soil last time around, are the prime candidates to stop them. However, there has been a downside to their glory on the world stage. Everyone in Asia now raises their game against them (they were runners-up to the Saudis in their group) and they’re under tremendous pressure at home to go a long way again. Their coach during the qualifiers resigned after the pandemonium surrounding their patchy passage to Germany.
Togo, meanwhile, could give them a few object lessons in disintegrating under very little pressure at all. After a triumphant qualifying campaign taking four points off Senegal, France’s 2002 nemesis, they approached January’s African Cup of Nations with some enthusiasm, but then the manager Stephen Keshi and star player, Arsenal’s Emmanuel Adebayor, fell out spectacularly over the striker’s commitment to the team and Togo lost all three games. The coach lost his job, but the rows continued. Togo were last seen having one of the world cup’s traditional pre-tournament quarrels about bonuses, breaking off only to lose to Saudi Arabia before scraping past Liechtenstein with the game’s only goal. It could be a long fortnight coming up for them. The South Koreans will certainly be licking their lips. They’re desperate to win a world cup finals game on foreign soil for the first time in six tournaments. We predict the Swiss will in turn beat them by the odd goal in a thriller to go through.
Team Ratings – A (best) to G (worst)
Defence – France B, Switzerland D, South Korea E, Togo F
Attack – France C, Switzerand C, South Korea E, Togo E
Crucial Game – Switzerland v South Korea, Fri 23rd June, 8pm - Hanover.
Fantasy Football Recommendations
The French defence and, hey, maybe even Barthez, constitute one of the best units in the competition in a single game, though a whole tournament might see age start to betray them. French defenders rarely find the net, but their narrow formation means opportunities for Willy Sagnol and Chelsea’s William Gallas to get some assists from crosses. Thierry Henry is, of course, a phenomenal striking talent, but he hasn’t yet taken a summer tournament by storm. He’s often alone up front just like in the Champions League final and he has somehow to persuade Zidane to give him the ball. Zizou himself is influential but far less dynamic than in his heyday. Swashbuckling new boy Franck Ribery has been subbing for him and may yet steal his thunder. David Trezeguet looks less likely to play than Sylvain Wiltord or Louis Saha.
The Swiss have one standout fantasy choice in striker Alexander Frei. He grabbed 8 goals in 10 qualifiers including a penalty and he’ll be spared the temptation to spit on Steven Gerrard’s neck again until at least the semi-finals. Arsenal centre half Philippe Senderos is a key target at set-pieces.
South Korea lost their best striker, Lee Dong-gook, to a cruciate injury and there’s little obvious fantasy value elsewhere except from Tottenham’s attacking full back Lee Young-Pyo. Starlet Park Chu-Young has looked impressive in his few appearances and might surprise with a goal or two.
We suggest you avoid Togo altogether, though Adebayor might nab a consolation goal or two. If strike partner Mohamed Kader Cougbadja, scorer of three goals in qualifying, is classified as a midfielder he might make a worthy gamble to surprise your workmates.
Picture of Napoleon's retreat from a car park in Ostend via polanri's Flickr stream.