Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The game plan from out of this world: Zodiac signs help Domenech spot

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Rio Ferdinand’s elevation to England captain may have been a surprise to many pundits but it was written in the stars. To be precise, in the star charts of Raymond Domenech.

The French coach, probably uniquely, and definitely bizarrely, admits that his team selection is influenced by astrology. Shortly before the last World Cup Domenech (Aquarius with Virgo rising) claimed he had problems with Robert Pires because Pires was a Scorpio, who always worked against Domenech’s interests.

Domenech denied he selected teams on the basis of the zodiac but added, “all parameters have to be considered and I have added one by saying there is astrology involved”.

Pires was soon out of favour and has remained so, despite being a key figure in Villarreal’s progress in La Liga. It may be a complete coincidence, but Bruno Pedretti, another Scorpio, was also quickly discarded while none of the original 39 players Domenech called up this week, for last night’s B international against Mali, and tonight’s senior game with England in Paris, is a Scorpio. He has since summoned Anthony Réveillère, but the Lyons full-back, like fellow Scorpio Charles Itandje, the Liverpool goalkeeper, cannot be optimistic about his chances.

So imagine Domenech’s horror when he discovers that not only is Wayne Rooney a Scorpio, so is the new England captain. Maybe Fabio Capello is even more cunning and devious than England fans had hoped.

Domenech also said he believed Leos made bad defenders, adding, “When I have got a Leo in defence, I’ve always got my gun ready. I know he’s going to want to show off at one moment or another and cost us.” French defenders born under Leo include William Gallas, Gaël Clichy, Julien Escudé and Sébastien Squillaci, all of whom are in the squad, and the injured Mikaël Silvestre. Perhaps Capello should prepare Rooney to be ready for the moment one of them shows off.

As was noted at the time of Domenech’s startling revelation, imagine how Glenn Hoddle would have been chewed up by the English media if he had made such an admission.

However, as Chelsea’s oscillating faith in Avram Grant indicates, football is a results business. Hoddle made his comments about disabled people before the 1998 World Cup, when England were on a high, and nobody commented. When he did so as the team appeared to be faltering, the pack pounced. Domenech has survived the astrological confession, the banishment of popular veterans like Pires, and even the suspicion that his authority has limited reach, because the team have kept winning.

He took over from the Spurs-bound Jacques Santini after France’s shock defeat to Greece in the quarter-finals of Euro 2004. Domenech, a technocrat who had previously coached the Under-21s, arrived with little support or fanfare. Yet he has overseen two shaky, but successful tournament qualifications, and a World Cup campaign which ended in defeat only on penalties.

Bravo, n’est-ce pas? It is argued by his relatively small band of critics that any manager could match these achievements with the resources Domenech can draw on. Despite losing seven players from his original squad, including players of the calibre of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Karim Benzema, he will be able to name two strong sides this week. Such is the strength in depth of the French game neither Patrice Evra, nor Clichy, for example, are likely to win selection at left-back. Barcelona’s Eric Abidal usually has that slot.

Capello’s third-choice left-back is Nicky Shorey, but before English supporters become envious there are a few aspects of French football worth considering. France produces more quality players than any country outside South America, but the best ply their trade elsewhere, many in the Premier League. Les Bleus have reached two of the last three World Cup finals, winning in 1998, and won the 2000 European Championship. Unlike England they are at Euro 2008. Yet they have no representative in the last eight of the Champions League or Uefa Cup. France’s only European club triumph in 52 years of competition was Marseilles’ 1993 European Cup success, of which they were subsequently stripped because of the club’s bribery scandal.

It is not as if the club game is, like the Championship here, thrilling in its mediocrity. Le Championnat is already destined for Lyons, for a seventh successive season. French attention is thus turning to the summer. Tonight’s match, said Domenech, will be treated as a dress rehearsal for France’s ties with Italy, the Netherlands and Romania in the “group of death”. The team’s other friendlies, against Ecuador, Paraguay and Colombia in May, are for fine-tuning.

Domenech says he has already selected, in his mind, 20 of his 23-man squad. It looks like being a powerful blend of youth and experience, but not everyone is sure he knows how to blend his promising ingredients.

The old guard are represented by the likes of 35-year-old Lilian Thuram, who will be winning his 138th cap if he plays tonight, Gallas, Claude Makelele and, when fit, Henry and Vieira. The young guns are led by Lyons’ Benzema (20) and Hatem Ben Arfa (21) and Marseilles’ Samir Nasri (21). The trio are, respectively, of Algerian, Tunisian and Berber origin, and are the first players of north African descent to emerge since Zinedine Zidane.

As usual, the clamour is to bring in the new and discard the old. Thuram and Henry have both been out of sorts at Barcelona while Vieira has not played well for France recently. Henry, however, has 17 goals in 35 games under Domenech while Vieira has tended to carry injuries into internationals this season – to Internazionale’s fury. Thuram stewarded a defence that conceded three goals in nine “live” qualifiers. All, it may be recalled, came good when it mattered in Germany.

What intrigues the French is the nature of these senior players’ relationship with Domenech. No one has quite worked out whether France reached the 2006 World Cup final because of Domenech or despite him. Several of the old guard had retired before being led back by Zidane, who was rumoured to have a strong influence in both team selection and strategy.

Zidane has gone, but many of his lieutenants remain. Is their influence cramping the development of the younger players, who also include the less heralded Jérémy Toulalan and François Clerc, both of Lyons? The issue is made more pertinent by recent comments from Domenech which appeared to suggest he was thinking not of the Euros, but the 2010 World Cup.

If so the temptation must be to build the team around Franck Ribéry, who emerged during the World Cup, and has this season been wowing the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich. Tonight’s team selection will provide a clue. David Trezeguet, scorer of 34 goals in 69 internationals, has been recalled in the wake of the withdrawals, just weeks after the Juventus striker, long overlooked, said, “I’m seriously considering quitting international football. The way [Domenech] has treated me is frankly unacceptable.”

Trezeguet will be encouraged by the fact that Nicolas Anelka was equally dismissive of the coach in the past, but is now back in the fold. Others, however, have not been forgiven. Ludovic Giuly, dropped before the World Cup, said he “deserved more respect”. Like Pires, he has not been recalled.

Domenech tips Italy and Germany for Euro 2008 as “their teams are not in a complicated situation”. As for who will wins tonight’s game, better turn to the horoscope page and see what is in store for Aquarians, Scorpios and Geminis such as Capello.

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