France looks to have overcome World Cup shame
France finally seems to have put its World Cup shame behind it after a convincing 2-1 away win against England showed how much the team has improved in just five months under new coach Laurent Blanc.
With young players like Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema and Yoann Gourcuff, the future looks bright for Blanc, and even France's skeptical press seems convinced that France has now finally turned the page on its South Africa debacle.
Sports daily L'Equipe splashed "Feel's So Good" over its front page, and Le Parisien newspaper called it "A Prestigious Success" as Blanc notched his fourth straight win following a difficult start to his job after replacing Raymond Domenech.
Those joyous headlines are a far cry from the derision and anger greeting the team's return from South Africa, where it fell apart under the unpopular Domenech, going on strike at training and failing to win a match for the second major tournament in succession.
Although England had a weakened team on Wednesday, the manner of France's win caught the eye, with Benzema scoring a clinical goal after a quick exchange of passes with Florent Malouda, and Mathieu Valbuena volleying in a perfect cross.
Even the normally conservative Le Figaro newspaper enthused that that France's traumatic year "ends with the guarantee of a radiant future" under Blanc's leadership.
"You remember this kind of match for many years," France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said. "We finish the year on a high note. I hope it serves us well for next year and to qualify for the Euros."
France will get a further indication of how far it has come when it faces Brazil in February, before resuming its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. France lost its first qualifier but now tops Group D after three consecutive wins.
"We're improving, that's important," Lloris added. "We started the year badly, we're finishing it well."
Six years ago, Blanc was snubbed when he applied to replace Jacques Santini as France's coach, with the heavily influential Aime Jacquet - France's 1998 World Cup winning coach - throwing his weight behind Domenech.
Around the same time as Blanc was turned down, France's under-17 team won the European Championship in 2004.
That team included Nasri and Benzema, who combined effortlessly against England, Newcastle's injured winger Hatem Ben Arfa and Roma forward Jeremy Menez. Ben Arfa and Menez are also part of Blanc's long-term plans, injury and form allowing.
So is Gourcuff, who was a key part of the France's under-19 team that won the European title in 2005.
While the ultra-cautious Domenech never managed to fit all these talents - known collectively as 'The '87 Generation' because they are around 23 years old - into his system, Blanc already seems to be well on the way to achieving it by giving them freedom to express themselves.
"We weren't under the obligation of needing points (against England) and the coach really wanted us to play good football," Gourcuff said. "We had a lot of freedom going forward."
While England's coach Fabio Capello was left pondering where the next generation of England players is going to come from, Blanc already has a plethora of young talent at his disposal.
Benzema, 23 next month, has scored three times in the last four international games. His tally of 11 in 32 is still moderate, but his form is improving under the guidance of Blanc, and under Jose Mourinho's firm hand at Real Madrid.
Central midfielder Yann Mvila is only 20, while forwards Dimitri Payet and Loic Remy - who both started on the bench against England - are 23.
The 30-year-old Malouda is a rare veteran with 62 appearances, and Blanc sees him as the new generation's role model.
Blanc lost his first two games in charge against Norway and Belarus, but the players sense things are now on track.
"There's a continuity to our results but also in the way we are playing," Malouda said. "You have to appreciate these moments and make sure you relive them."