HAVANA (AP) – Two years ago, France took the idea of a sporting meltdown to unprecendented levels. It was shambolic, it was surreal, it was shameful. If you take just about every quality needed to achieve in sport and then imagine the opposite, it would sum up France's horror show during the 2010 World Cup. They came home to a barrage of criticism and rotten tomatoes hurled by everyone from ordinary folk right up to government ministers. A national inquiry was required to sort out the whole sorry mess. Heads quite rightly rolled.
A dark cloud had hovered over the French camp even before they set foot in South Africa, and pretty quickly the atmosphere worsened. They failed to win either of their first two group games against Uruguay and Mexico, not managing to score a single goal, and then they descended into mayhem. There was mutinous talk amongst the players, who had lost what little faith they once had in their coach, a quirky man by the name of Raymond Domenech who had a knack for rubbing people up the wrong way.
One of the ringleaders was Nicolas Anelka, a striker who was good enough represent Chelsea , Real Madrid and Arsenal during his career: he was expelled from the camp and sent home for his part in the rebellion. The remaining players then went on strike, refusing to train as they employed lawyers to prepare a statement explaining their position. As if rubbing salt into the wounds, the players left Domenech to read out their statement for them, effectively making him dig his own grave.
France had one game left to salvage some pride, and flunked it. Domenech left out most of the senior agitators. Thierry Henry, of the New York Red Bulls, and Patrice Evra, of Manchester United , sat watching from the bench muttering to each other like a pair of errant schoolboys. Henry is his country's record goal scorer of all time and his international career ended horribly. France lost, finished bottom of their group, and went home in disgrace.
The world watched on as France imploded. The players were accused of behaving like spoiled brats. The Federation were blamed for sitting on their hands. The coach was brutally exposed. The country hurtled down the Fifia world rankings. The overall embarrassment was on an enormous scale.
The good news is that from such a nadir, the only way has been up. A new coach with a place in the hearts of all French football supporters came to the rescue. Laurent Blanc, who won the World Cup and European Championship double as a player and was a cultured defender so well loved his nickname is "Le President", came in to universal support. His mission needed a clean break from the past. Blanc advocated a move to give a one-match ban to the entire squad from the South Africa debacle.
He wasn't so keen on the extra bans handed out to some of the most awkward of customers, which included Evra and Franck Ribery. The Bayern Munich winger has been one of the key players who have been forgiven, though, and he has a vital role to play in the new team that has evolved under Blanc, one that has a new determination and is liberated from the past by some fresh faces. They have become very difficult to beat.
Striker Karim Benzema and attacking midfielder Samir Nasri, two players Domenech shunned, have become particularly important. Both come into the tournament high on confidence having won their domestic leagues with Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively. Other newcomers to watch out for are in midfield in Yohan Cabaye of Newcastle and Yann M'Vila, who is currently trying to regain fitness. It's doubtful M'Vila will play, but if he can he will: he is the team's tenacious anchor.
"I have a big responsibility because I'm one of the older players," says Ribery. "Our unbeaten run gives us a lot of confidence. We will do our utmost to come out victorious. The results in our last two big tournaments weren't good, and we don't want that to happen again. We will do our utmost to survive the group stages, and we'll see what happens from there on."
France have not lost a game since the very first competitive match overseen by Blanc in September 2010, an undefeated streak that now stands at 21 games. They would love to add to that with this critical opening Euro fixture against England. The atmosphere in the camp is notably optimistic and cheerful. They are ready, and raring, to show a more positive face