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A lesson in Dom-ocracy

October 17, 2008
By Paul Marshall

'The moment of truth' was how French sports daily L'Equipe billed France's World Cup qualifier with Romania on Saturday with Raymond Domenech's future hinging on the result. It seems the 'truth' is that a streaky draw followed by a win over Tunisia in a friendly is sufficient for you to keep your job. Steve McClaren must be cursing his luck he's not French.

Jacques Lambert general Director of French football association, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, president of French football association (FFF) and Frederic Thiriez,
GettyImagesThree wise men - with Jean-Pierre Escalettes centre - offer Domenech a stay of execution.
"To change the coach today would have been ridiculous, and would weaken the team when it has forward momentum - that is not our aim," said Jean-Pierre Escalettes, French FA (FFF) head honcho and chief cheerleader for Big Dom, by way of explanation of just how the FFF's Federal Council voted on Wednesday to give Domenech the chance to squeeze les Bleus painfully through to South Africa.

The one thing everyone is agreed on is that it would have been 'ridiculous' had Domenech been fired now, three games into the qualifying campaign. If they were going to sack him, it could have been done much less messily back in July when the public and media were clamouring for his head, though the reasons given for now sticking by him are hardly convincing.

At a showdown meeting of the council in early July, Domenech was reportedly told five points were required from the opening trio of Group Seven matches. A defeat in Vienna, a shaky win over Serbia and a draw in Romania having come back from two goals down later, and you don't have to be Stephen Hawking to work out that leaves Domenech one short of the required total.

Still, it seems that performance and not points is now the yardstick by which the French FA measure success.

Escalettes had pleaded for more attacking football from the side back in the summer, launching a plaintive and accusatory, "Never again a France v Romania" with reference to the abysmal goalless stalemate the pair played out at Euro 2008.

"Something happened on the pitch, which tipped the scales even more strongly [in Domenech's favour]," said Escalettes on Wednesday. "I'm thinking about the second half against Serbia and the miracle of Constanta, with 67% possession, chances, and a generous style of football always going forward." Stirring stuff it was on the shores of the Black Sea, and the cavalier devil-may-care philosophy was carried into Tuesday's defeat of Tunisia at the Stade de France, where the whistling and booing of the Marseillaise provoked far greater ire than France's inability to defend against modest opponents.

'Generous' is a word that could be used to describe 'defender' Jean-Alain Boumsong. An eloquent post-match interviewee, always ready to give a quote, he is equally hospitable to opponents on the pitch. Rumour has it that Domenech took the former Newcastle centre-half to Euro 2008 because he is such a nice chap.

Clearly, Boumsong is a chosen one, because with William Gallas injured and despite the fact he has barely featured for Lyon this season, the habitually cautious Domenech showed a hari-kari streak as he preferred 'Boum' to both Roma's Philippe Mexès and Sevilla's Sebastien Squillaci to start alongside Eric Abidal against Romania - a central defensive partnership which had experienced just two minutes together on the pitch prior to walking out in Constanta - before keeping faith with them for the friendly with Tunisia.

"To play at the back, you need to develop habits," said Domenech, who hinted the pair can prepare themselves for the double-header with Lithuania regardless of whether or not they are hit by a bus between now and next spring.

"I didn't want to change - it's back-to-back matches, which will also be the case against Lithuania. I didn't want to disturb the defensive sector. I tried to stabilise it." A logical even commendable notion, although he conveniently ignored the fact he changed his left-back for the third game running, and - perhaps more importantly - failed to acknowledge it was a considerable risk, one that he got wrong in Romania and from which he was lucky to escape unscathed.

GettyImagesFrance concede in Romania. Not for the first time, Jean-Alain Boumsong stands agog.
The duo's lack of understanding saw at least one of them implicated in both Romanian goals, while - just for good measure - Boumsong was also at fault for Tunisia's goal at the Stade de France after the kind of misjudgement usually reserved for London's High Court. Despite gaffe-prone performances, Boumsong perhaps still should have featured - if we follow Domenech's 'logic' - but alongside former Auxerre team-mate Mexès, rather than Abidal, given the success the pair enjoyed whilst forging their reputations in Ligue 1.

The defensive conundrum runs deeper than that one match though. Les Bleus have shipped 13 goals in their last six matches - numbers even more frightening than the FTSE 100 - and even the Faroe Islands have a better 'goals against' record having faced the same Group Seven opponents as the French. Escalettes may have the attacking football he wants, but he should be more concerned that the 4-1 loss to the Dutch at Euro 2008 is more a sign of things to come if France meet some half-decent opposition in competition.

However, it appears the French press - openly hostile to Domenech since Euro 2008 - have also bought into the 'He's alright now we're playing football with panache' claptrap. "We like it, us" is the rather northern English translation of the L'Equipe headline on Sunday after the point gained in Romania.

Yes, France played pretty football - but they were two goals down before they did so. However, the fact that the French media's natural instinct is to boundless fawning over their national team, and the fact the players are now actually talking to them - something they conspicuously failed to do in Switzerland last summer - means delight amongst hacks and editors nationwide. Domenech does have three things going for him. The players, unlike everyone else, seem to have some affection for the man with Franck Ribéry and Thierry Henry giving him very public backing prior to the vote, stressing how Domenech had pushed more right buttons than a world champion at space invaders in his half-time team talk in Constanta.

The spectacular emergence of Yoann Gourcuff can - in part - also be put down to Domenech, after he drafted the 22-year-old into the squad for the first time this summer. The Bordeaux playmaker - on loan to Laurent Blanc from AC Milan, no less - has the same profile and arguably the talent, if not the same hairline nor prodigious reputation, as Zinédine Zidane - a point made by Zizou's mate Bixente Lizarazu this week.

Gourcuff's inclusion in the side means Domenech can opt for the squad's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation that got them to the 2006 World Cup final, while the former Rennes player's instant telepathy with Ribéry, which saw each score a goal supplied by the other in Romania, positively reeks of potential.

GettyImagesYoann Gourcuff may well have been the saviour of his boss.
Perhaps the biggest plus for Domenech is that no-one presented themselves as a genuine candidate to replace him.

Didier Deschamps has put so many noses out of joint at the FFF that rhinoplasty is de rigeur at headquarters; Laurent Blanc and Bordeaux's owners have stressed how he will honour his contract, which expires at the end of this season; Gérard Houllier seems to be quite happy mulling over just why he bought Bruno Cheyrou and Salif Diao in his cushy office-bound role as Directeur Technique Nationale; and surely Jean Tigana, mentioned in L'Equipe as a potential successor, was never a serious option.

"Keeping Domenech is the least bad solution," was how the pro-Deschamps football league president Frédéric Thiriez summed up the mood prior to voting in favour of the status quo. Hardly a vote of confidence.

So don't be surprised if Blanc - the FFF's blue-eyed boy - signs a contract extension some time this season, ending - like Domenech's deal - after the final of the 2010 World Cup.