France struggling to find a leader
France is struggling for leadership and confidence with four days remaining before its opening World Cup group game against Uruguay.
Coach Raymond Domenech's team looks rudderless in comparison to 2006 when it united behind Zinedine Zidane's inspired leadership to reach the final.
Former captain Thierry Henry is on the bench and Patrice Evra was only recently given the armband.
There is mounting expectation that the current crop of players is bound to flop, and winger Sidney Govou says that France will only improve by pulling together quickly.
"We're lacking this little something for us to be a good team, a very good team," Govou said Monday. "This won't happen if we shoot each other down, putting the blame on such and such."
Some critics, like former France defender Marcel Desailly, are predicting the worst for Domenech's team.
Desailly played alongside Zidane when France won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship two years later.
A decade on, he is an outspoken media pundit. In his newspaper column for a South Africa's Sunday Times, he drew bleak and unfavorable comparisons with the team of four years ago. Desailly even predicted Domenech's team would not qualify from the group stage. Mexico and host South Africa are also in Group A.
"In 2006, the spine of the team was Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, Claude Makelele, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry - experienced players," Desailly wrote. "The young generation should be bringing enthusiasm but it's just not there."
Desailly questions the wisdom of Domenech's sudden decision to switch from a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation to a more attacking 4-3-3 lineup only two weeks ago, suggesting it was arranged too hastily and has confused the players.
"They are now at the end of their preparation and should be at their best, but I'm annoyed that we still don't have a starting lineup and are undecided over tactics," said Desailly, who played 116 times for France. "A team that's going to win the World Cup should already know these things. You need a team of leaders to win the World Cup."
France has been regularly criticized since going out of the European Championship two years ago without winning a match.
"I won't say we're used to it, but we haven't had it easy for two years. We're living with it," Govou said. "We're getting criticized quite a lot and it's not easy, so we try and gain strength from within the squad.
"We haven't been brilliant on the pitch. There is a difference between what people think the players are capable of individually and what we do collectively. I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to listen to everything that's been said. It's not always credible, it's not always fair."
Domenech appears to have left the team largely to its own devices, with the players expected to find the answers.
"We don't have any instructions, we don't have any restrictions," Govou said. "We need to make this 4-3-3 system work, so that we play as well as possible in defense or in attack."
The new system started brightly enough when France beat Costa Rica 2-1 two weeks ago, but France then drew 1-1 at Tunisia and lost 1-0 against China last Friday.
"We're obviously disappointed by our last two matches," Govou said. "We have problems in a collective sense, (problems) playing collectively all the time."
Arsenal defender William Gallas had previously led France on two occasions. As the most senior player in Domenech's starting team with more than 80 appearances, many expected him to receive the captain's armband with Henry and Vieira missing.
But Domenech had doubts over Gallas' fitness following his difficult recovery from a calf tear. Some French reports speculate that Gallas is deeply unhappy with the decision, although the player has not spoken to the media.
While some France players insist the team does have a strong leadership, they do not sound very convincing.
"Thierry (Henry) is a leader, William Gallas is a leader, Pat Evra is (one as well) ... I could name you a lot of leaders," France midfielder Alou Diarra said. "Franck (Ribery) is a leader ... I could name you a lot of leaders."
Diarra's statement merely underlines how no one truly stands out as a natural leader, the way Zidane did in 2006.