BREMEN, GERMANY – Laurent Blanc was prompt in arriving at his pre-match news conference, settling into his seat at 6 p.m. on the dot. While the France coach is habitually an engaging speaker, the bulk of the attendees in a busy Weserstadion media room had their eyes fixed on the stark space to Blanc's right. It was not until half-an-hour in that the confirmed captain, Hugo Lloris, took his seat, though we knew he was lurking in the corridor backstage.
One might have assumed that after the infamous 'Bus Of Shame' incident at Knysna in the summer of 2010, the French national team has already had its share of unnecessary off-field drama. Blanc's reign has recovered a good degree of the face lost in that painful episode, but the question mark over the identity of a permanent captain has been a lingering irritant to a country desperate for its team to regain some sort of stability.
Lloris should provide just that after a selection process that has rumbled on for months. Blanc made clear that he intended to have his captain in place by the gala friendly match in Bremen, with the probables and possibles limited to three; Lloris, Philippe Mexès and Eric Abidal. Though rumors have done the rounds that the more experienced Abidal had responded unfavorably after Blanc sounded him out for the role, the coach was at pains to make clear that Lloris was his preference. "It's a real choice, not a choice by default," he insisted.
The role of an international captain in soccer is far more notional and indefinable than, say, in cricket. A cricket captain is the on-field coach. He sets the field, selects which bowlers bowl when and as such is responsible for overseeing and adjusting the side's tactical approach.
That a soccer captain fulfills a more ambassadorial function makes him less important in that sense but more open to scrutiny in terms of the overall personality he portrays. Whereas the English psyche craves an alpha male leader - chest-beating and barking encouragement to the troops - the France armband has taken on more meaning since the debacle of the 2010 World Cup.
Many in France remain convinced that the previous incumbent, Patrice Evra, should be serving a lifetime ban for the chaos that unfolded on his watch in South Africa, Whatever your view on Evra, it's clear that the lack of leadership in that disastrous summer has made the armband mean something more.
Alou Diarra was tried in the role and has been a Blanc favorite since their time together at Bordeaux, but he has played himself out of contention with his scratchy displays for much of this season with his new club Marseille. Mexès, conversely, has non-played himself out of the picture.
Following a serious knee injury, the AC Milan defender was making his return for the national team at the Weser, exactly 11 months after his last appearance in a friendly against Croatia. "If he (Blanc) makes me captain, it won't change my personality," he had said on Monday, before the announcement. "If I have it or not, I have to talk, to communicate. It's not the armband that that's going to make you become Maradona."
Mexès was considered the favorite at one point, partly due to that expressiveness, and his secure place in the side. Now, he's starting again, though his performance against Germany reminded us of what a key element he is for France at his best level. "Philippe is coming back more and more to his best level," said Blanc pre-match, with the underlying implication being that too many other elements of the side are works in progress for the captaincy to be likewise.
The coach said that he had already made his mind up before viewing footage of Mexès' off-the-ball assault on Marco Borriello in Saturday's draw with Juventus (which earned him a three-match ban), but he was clearly unimpressed. "It's not good," he shrugged. "It doesn't just penalize him, but the whole team. If he does something like that in the first match of the Euro, he risks going straight home. It's something (for him) to think about, and certainly something not to do again."
Amateur mistakes are to be avoided, with the squad's greenness apparent from a quick peek at the roster for the match. It contained just three players who have faced Germany before: Diarra, Florent Malouda and Anthony Reveillère. Blanc himself admitted in a Monday press conference, before the departure for Bremen, that his team "lacks a bit of personality and experience".
Lloris doesn't initially appear the most obvious solution to this, but it's not just his sterling work as Lyon's last line of defense that sees France consider him as a safe pair of hands. His diplomacy in his debut press conference showed all the qualities that persuaded Blanc from his previously expressed view that goalkeepers don't make good captains.
"He gives us more guarantees than others," Blanc said, "and is someone who can bring a certain clarity to the role." Lloris justified his coach's faith perfectly against Germany. As he had hoped, he maintained his own level of excellence, twice denying Miroslav Klose in the first half, but his fingerprints were all over an excellent France performance; a model of control, discipline and "tactical rigor", as he put it to journalists post-match.
This is characteristic, for while Lloris is someone who really can keep his head when all about are losing theirs, he is also a true competitor. His flip-out when Lyon let a lead slip late on at Nice last season ("we s--- ourselves" he was filmed screaming by Canal+ on the way back into the locker room) was a rare but significant public expression that still waters run deep.
"Criticism is part of the game," Lloris said just before exiting the Weserstadion. "But when all of us are pulling in the same direction, the France team has another face altogether." The early evidence of an impressive unity suggests Blanc has chosen very wisely indeed.