By Alex Hayes at the Independent
"If your name's not down, you're not coming in." The phrase has traditionally been associated with angry bouncers on a Friday or Saturday night, but it could just as easily apply to the management of the French national team. The only difference is that Roger Lemerre is running an exclusive football club - one which, like its more famous cousin the exclusive nightclub, is damn near impossible to gain membership of.
Just ask one of the Premiership's most consistent midfielders, Steed Malbranque of Fulham, who has helped his promoted team reach mid-table security in the League as well as the quarter-finals of the FA Cup against West Brom today.
Malbranque is one of a growing list of players - including the likes of Newcastle's Laurent Robert, Nantes' Mickael Landreau, Chelsea's William Gallas, West Ham's Frederic Kanoute, Leeds' Olivier Dacourt, Parma's Sabri Lamouchi, and Auxerre's Djibril Cisse to name but a few - who are playing the best football of their careers, but cannot force their way into their country's plans. Conversely, there are a number of internationals who have been struggling for form or have failed to break into their club sides, and yet are assured of their place.
The swanky French club, otherwise referred to as Les Bleus, was formed by a generation of footballers who, having been abandoned by their country's supporters and media in the early Nineties, decided to stick together in the hope that results would eventually follow. They did, of course, and in spectacular fashion. First, a semi-final defeat on penalties at Euro 96 in England; then the crowning moment at the World Cup in France four years ago; before the European Championship was added to the collection in the Low Countries in 2000. Not bad for a squad who were successively labelled by the French press as "a bunch of losers, a bunch of bores" and "a bunch of no-hopers".
The problem with clubs becoming successful is that they attract the attention of outsiders who want a taste of the action. By the same token, the founding fathers are usually reluctant to allow any new members to join their ranks. No fewer than 17 of the 22 who won Euro 2000 are expected to be in Japan and South Korea. "It's true that there is an elitism problem, but there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do," says Vincent Duluc, the football correspondent of the French sports daily L'Equipe. "How can you criticise the World and European champions? We're all too scared."
The players, too, are afraid to speak out. Malbranque, who has represented France at every level since he was 13 and is tipped for senior honours, is naturally cautious not to antagonise the French management. "Apart from my club duties, I have the Under-21 European Championship in May to look forward to," he says, before adding that the World Cup is an unrealistic target. "There are just too many players ahead of me in the pecking order."
These include two Frenchmen in excellent form, Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires, as well as two who are having seasons to forget, Bolton's Youri Djorkaeff and Bordeaux's Christophe Dugarry. "However well I play, there is no way I will be picked at the expense of the guys who have been part of the group for years," Malbranque says. "This is an established set, and I don't think any youngster will be given their chance until after the summer. But that's normal to a certain extent. These players have remained very close and have been very successful. You can't suddenly ask them to pack their bags."
Christian Damiano, who was part of France's back-room staff for the 1998 World Cup before joining Jean Tigana at Fulham almost two years ago, agrees with his protge. "I have known Steed since he was a young teenager," Damiano says, "and I can tell you that he is destined to do great things. For a 22-year-old, he is incredibly complete: he works hard, he's willing to progress, and he can pass and score from central midfield. He is Fulham's Gianfranco Zola; and one day he will be France's new Zidane. But for now, he has no choice but to wait his turn with the national team."
While no one can argue with France's recent results, critics of the set-up feel that too many talented Frenchmen are being denied the chance of representing their country because the old guard refuse to be budged. Cisse is Le Championnat's top scorer and the subject of interest from Liverpool and Arsenal, but the Auxerre striker will not go to the Far East. "The greatest concern that I have ahead of the World Cup," Duluc says, "is that France will enter the tournament with too many players in their thirties. If we're not careful, we could end up with a similar situation to Germany at USA 94. That team were too old and were eliminated in the quarter-finals. So far as Lemerre's concerned, though, it's better to have an older and more experienced player than a young and naive one. I'm not so sure."
In many ways, it is difficult to blame the likes of Marcel Desailly, 33, Djorkaeff, 34, Christian Karembeu, 31, Bixente Lizarazu, 33, Emmanuel Petit, 32, and Frank Leboeuf, 34, for wanting to prolong the French fairytale. They were the ones who picked up the pieces after Gérard Houllier's team failed to qualify for USA 94. They also implemented the Aimé Jacquet revolution. "The key players, who gave their all when things were going badly, are bound to want one more experience together," Damiano says. "They have been through so much that they want one more go. Is it a tournament too far? We will see, but I think it is clear the group will change after the summer."
Jacquet and Lemerre will primarily be remembered for discarding the more individual talents such as Eric Cantona or David Ginola, and opting instead for a strong unit. "Their policy worked," Duluc says. "France were unbeaten for 30 matches leading up to Euro 96 and have remained incredibly difficult to break down ever since. It's the defence that won the World Cup. There was one wonderfully creative player called Zidane, but otherwise this was a solid and reliable team; not a creative and expansive one."
By Euro 2000, the new manager had introduced a little more fire-power and France were better equipped to score goals. But the reality is that they still based their success on sound defending. "And luck," Duluc insists. "Just think, apart from the 3-0 World Cup final win against Brazil, France's last eight knockout matches have been won thanks to golden goals, penalty kicks, missed penalties, and two goals from a defender (Lilian Thuram in the semi-finals of France 98) who had never scored before and has never scored since."
Perhaps this charmed life explains why Les Bleus are so close-knit. "Even when they are a goal down with 10 seconds to play," Duluc adds, "this generation always believe deep down they are going to win." Until they are proved wrong, the club door will remain firmly shut.