LENS, FRANCE - MAY 26: Thierry Henry of France looks up after being fouled during the France v Costa Rica International Friendly match at Stade Felix Bollaert on May 26, 2010 in Lens, France. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Thierry Henry
FIFA RANK: 9
Ten years ago, France was untouchable in the soccer universe. Not only had "Les Bleus" won the '98 World Cup on home soil, they also won Euro Cup 2000. It was the first time ever a European nation had pulled off that impressive double. What a difference a decade makes.
France heads into South Africa this summer under immense scrutiny back home and a cloud of controversy around the world. Les Bleus had a mediocre qualifying campaign, that included a blowout loss to Austria to start and a narrow win over the lowly Faroe Islands. They finished second to Serbia in the group and were forced into a two-game playoff against the Republic of Ireland. But the madness was just about to begin.
Les Bleus pulled it together to grab a crucial win in Dublin, but all..lets just say "heck" broke loose in the return leg in Paris. France was down 1-0 in extra time when the now infamous "hand of gaul" incident took place. (A comparison to the "Hand of God" illegal goal that helped Argentina secure the cup in 1986.)
French forward Thierry Henry intentionally handled a ball from a free kick, and shoveled it towards William Gallas, who put in the back of the net. Volleyball players would have a tough time mastering this move, that's how egregious it was. The Irish pleaded with refs and replay clearly showed Henry handled the ball, not once but twice during the play. But in the end, luck was clearly not on the side of the Irish and France grabbed a spot in this summer's World Cup.
Henry later apologized and admitted he handled the ball on purpose, but by then FIFA was ready to sweep it under the rug. It deserves noting Henry is a legend in France and an all-around great player, but in one play, he went from hero to zero.
But now that France is in, you best believe they will make their presence felt. They are just too talented not to do some damage in South Africa. The roster is loaded with all stars. I mentioned Henry, but he is now considered a fading force. Franck Ribery is the main cog in the French machine. Ribery is one of the most talented players in the game and has become a world class scoring threat. Yoann Gourcuff is a young, exciting mid-fielder who can score and create from anywhere on the pitch. And there was uncertainty about who would play keeper, but Hugo Lloris not only made the position his, he's now one of the rising keepers in the game. I can go on and on, but let me make this simple, France is similar to USC football in the amount of riches they have to deploy, now they just need to get it together.
It's easy to see why the French faithful are so down on this team. But then again, there were similar feelings four years ago, and all Les Bleus did was make it to the final of Germany '06 before falling to Italy in penalty kicks. But I can't see that happening again. I think the soccer gods catch up to the French and politely shove them out of the way much like Henry did to that free kick in Paris.
June 11 vs. Uruguay - 1:30 p.m. CT (French can't afford to start slow, Uruguay has offense to put up early goals)
June 17 vs. Mexico - 1:30 p.m. CT (As much as i'd like to see France win, Mexico plays very well against top tier teams)
June 22 vs. South Africa - 9 a.m. CT (France will need the points and that's bad news for the host)
NEXT ON THE PITCH: ENGLAND