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HindustanTimes Wed,03 Sep 2014

Football

Stakes high for France in World Cup play-off
AFP
Paris, November 15, 2013
First Published: 01:36 IST(15/11/2013)
Last Updated: 01:41 IST(15/11/2013)

France face Ukraine on Friday in the first leg of a World Cup qualifying play-off in which there is a huge amount at stake for coach Didier Deschamps, his players and the French Football Federation (FFF).

Les Bleus qualified for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 via a play-off, and now they take on Ukraine in Kiev on Friday before the return leg at the Stade de France next Tuesday looking to do it again.

Victory would maintain their record of not having missed a major tournament finals since the 1994 World Cup in the USA, when current coach Deschamps was part of the team that famously lost at the death to Bulgaria in their final qualifier.

But failure would lead to further soul-searching for a country that has faded as a footballing force since losing the 2006 World Cup final on penalties to Italy.

- What is at stake for the French Football Federation?
Missing out on the next World Cup could cause internal conflict at the FFF. The image of the French national team has been at a low ebb ever since the fiasco of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the squad famously refused to train in a dispute with then-coach Raymond Domenech before making an ignominious group-stage exit.

Those wounds had never quite healed and were re-opened when left-back Patrice Evra - the former captain - launched a stinging attack on a number of high-profile pundits during a television interview last month.

Domestically, there is the threat of a strike by the country's professional clubs in protest at the government's plans to tax all earnings over one million euros ($1.34m) at 75%.

But that step is not a popular one among the public, and a failure to qualify for the World Cup would be disastrous for the image of the game. It would also leave president Noel Le Graet - who was re-elected for four years in December last year - on decidedly shaky ground.

After all, it was he who chose to part company with Laurent Blanc after a disappointing Euro 2012 and appoint Deschamps. Another failure so close to Euro 2016, which France will host, could not feasibly be tolerated.

Financially, the cost of failure could be exorbitant, with the FFF having to renegotiate sponsorship deals after the World Cup and with rights to show France matches for the next four years soon to be put out to tender.

- What is at stake for Deschamps?
It is said that Deschamps was instilled with a 'winning culture' during his years spent in Italy, so a large part of his reputation is at stake in the play-offs.

The captain of France's 1998 World Cup-winning team already has the worst record of any coach after 16 games at the helm (level with Michel Hidalgo) and is hoping not to follow in the footsteps of Gerard Houllier, who oversaw France's last qualifying failure in 1993.

Deschamps has refused to discuss his future should France miss out on a place in Brazil, and his good relationship with Le Graet along with the perspective of a Euro 2016 on home soil and the lack of a credible alternative suggest that he will stay put regardless. But the pressure could become too much if France fail to beat Ukraine.

- What is at stake for the players?
The France squad remains young and most of the players should remain available for selection after the current campaign is over. On top of his game and France's only truly world-class player just now, Franck Ribery should remain a central figure ahead of Euro 2016.

The recent past suggests that any large-scale revamping of the squad will be difficult, although veteran duo Eric Abidal and Patrice Evra may not still be involved beyond this campaign.

With two years of friendly matches ahead of Euro 2016, young prospects like Lucas Digne, Florian Thauvin and Geoffrey Kondogbia - all of whom were members of the squad that won the under-20 World Cup in the summer - should get their chance to impress.

Meanwhile, other starlets such as Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba can be expected to play a major role.


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