Monday, June 05, 2006

#9: Les Bleus


Where? The majority of Western Europe.

How Big? Pretty big. One of the largest European nations. Twice the size of Colorado. Population is large too, three times the size of Texas.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook... I never knew how involved the French government is in major industries. It appears that the government is still the largest stakeholder in Air France, France Telecom, and Renault. I didn't know that.

Geopolitical significance? France's size and population often confer upon it the status of the spokesperson of Europe. This means that, for good or for bad, France has international clout. Recently, France has been pushing its foreign policy through its membership in internation associations, such as the United Nations and the European Union. The ire directed at France at the onset of the Iraq War, if nothing else, suggests that France still matters on the world stage.

Fun? Sure, France is fun. Every Summer, I follow Le Tour de France, and it looks fun as hell. I mean, for almost a whole month, every day another town has a reason to get drunk as hell on the roads all over the region, scream for a minute or two, and wear ridiculous bullshit like viking horns and chaps. The fans of the tour are incredible. I want to go to France during that time.


France are one of the best teams in the world, when they're good. Unlike other top teams, the Blues seem to run in cycles. When they're good, they're great. When they aren't, they're average, or not even good. France's World Cup history was OK at the beginnings of the event, but their real breakthrough was in 1958 when Just Fontaine set the record for goals in a single competition with 13 (though most people remember Pele). France cycled back around in the early 80s, when France finished 4th in 1982, won the 1984 European Championship, and finished 3rd in Mexico 1986, led by Platini. After a few times around without qualifying for major tournaments, France cycled back around in 1996, making the semis of the European Championship, then winning the World Cup in 1998, and following it up with the European Championship title in 2000. 2002 was a huge step back, with France losing two, drawing the third and not even scoring.

Qualifying could have been much easier for France this time around. They were drawn in one of the toughest groups, with Ireland, Israel, and Switzerland. Due to the odd schedule, for the most part of qualifying France was looking up at other teams in the standings. But by the end, France ended up on top, but just barely.

The Cup roster is one of the most experienced in the tournament, but also one of the most aging. The names should be very familiar to American fans. Barthez, Zidane, Trezeguet, Wiltord, Viera, Thuram. The core of the World and Euro Cup teams is back, though they won't necessarily see the field as much. Look out for Claude Makelele actually getting a chance. He deserved it long ago, so look for him to make the most of it. William Gallas, Makelele's Chelsea teammate, should be fantastic in the defense. But the one to watch, as last time around, is Thierry Henry. He might be the only goalscorer who can rival Ronaldinho for doing incredible things with the ball. In this group, he should have the opportunity to put on a show.

The group is favorable for France, both because there isn't another powerhouse there and because the other teams play loose, attacking football. It should be very fun to watch.

They open with a team France knows well, Switzerland, a replay of two qualifying matches. I think there'll be lots of shots on goal, butnot so many goals. Henry finally breaks through in the second half. 1-0 France, and things are already better than 2002.

The second match is against South Korea, and it's the same story. Lots of scoring chances, not many goals, from either team. Henry nets another one late. 1-0 France.

The last game is academic, as France has already clinched a spot in the next round. Doesn't really matter though. France scores twice in the first half, both Cisse in a surprise start. Louis Saha gets the third. Togo gets one goal, but it's not enough. 3-1 France.

Topping the group gets second place in Group H, which one might think to be an easy game. But they draw Ukraine, which has turned out to be one of the stories of the Cup. Sheva stuns France with his fitness and with two goals in the first half. Henry scores to make it close, but too little, too late. 2-1 Ukraine. You'll hear from them again a little later.

So it's a better result than last time, but a bitter finish to France's Cup. They were dominant in the group, but slipped up in the Round of 16. I have a personal feeling like Barthez is going to screw up at an important time.

If the World Cup were March Madness, France would be... a team that every few years arrives with a tremendous lineup, but then for a few years they disappear and might not even make the tournament. But when they're in it, they are among the best. I thought Oklahoma State, Arizona, Stanford, and some others, but I'm settled on Maryland.

If the nation's most exalted and patriotic image features bare breasts, you know that it's a country you want to visit.