Fancy French

Last updated : 16 October 2002 By Bernard Azulay

A pitch that could have passed for Hackney Marshes might have been the catalyst for this prosaic performance. Nevertheless comparing the two sides, one apparently aimless and the other peerless, even the smooth talking Sven cannot convince me that he's currently coaching contenders for France's European crown.

There was more than a moment of confusion when I first changed channels at the end of the coverage of the Bratislavan mud-bath. How could I now be watching a live transmission from the Stade De France, where the scoreline on the screen suggested the Gauls were two goals up against the same opponents? I was far more concerned about catching a replay of the sort of goal from Patrick Vieira, that many at Highbury believe he's capable of scoring regularly for the Arsenal. Patrick might be a little more composed when carving his way like a panther through a herd of awestruck antelope for his country, because he doesn't have thousands of Gooners with a foreshortened view behind the goal at the other end of the pitch, screaming at him to hammer one home from anywhere past the halfway line.

If England's anxious efforts were those of a team with everything to lose, then the French played like a side with plenty to prove. Zidane's lack of fitness during the World Cup could have been a major factor in their embarrassing early exit. On Saturday Zizou beguiled his audience with his entire box of tricks. Yet in addition to conjuring up the breathtakingly balletic cameos that captivated the crowd, he also appears to be the fulcrum around which all of France's football revolves. Moreover the French side doesn't exactly seem to have suffered from the Arsenal's sensational form.

For months now the French media have been moaning at the Arsenal players. Across the Channel many column inches have been spent puzzling over why our lads have been unable to bring the passion and commitment they produce each week in the Premiership, to their occasional International appearances. I spent hours in Auxerre, poring over Patrick's extremely frank interview in France Foot magazine (only to find most of my efforts were unnecessary when a translation of much of this article appeared in the Sunday papers!). Vieira's explanation of the vast difference between playing for the Arsenal and Les Bleus was hardly rocket science but I would be astonished if his revelations were responsible for an overnight revolution.

To my mind we saw signs of France's new found resolve in the swagger of Henry, Vieira and man of the match Sylvain Wiltord and I'm not joking when I say it was "just like watching Arsenal" (although there would be no-one at Highbury to turn down a little ZZ on top!). What's more with Pires fast approaching fitness, standing on the sidelines applauding his pals in Paris, Pascal Cygan pushing his claim for inclusion with every game he plays and the Arsenal's new blue second strip, it might soon be impossible to distinguish between the two.

If I had realized I was missing such entertaining French fare on Eurosport, I might have given up on the England game a lot earlier. At the very least I could have spent the second half channel hopping. I am just grateful I didn't have an Ireland encounter to contend with. No matter how dexterous I might be, it would be difficult to listen to one game on the radio, whilst trying to keep up with two on the tell. Discerning the difference between the two team's opposition was a more dyslexic problem. It wasn't until a lull in the later match that I managed to suss out Slovenia and Slovakia are either side of Hungary (although Snackier would be more appropriate!) and that the French were walking over a team of World Cup qualifiers, whereas England were struggling against a side that have been also rans since Alexander the Great was managing the Macedonians.

Alan Hansen was correct in his conclusion that in such dreadful conditions it was just a case of getting the job done as far as England was concerned. Yet I was disappointed because I was hoping we might discover whether, relatively speaking, a fit Stephen Gerrard could provide a similar shot in the arm for Sven's side, as Zidane's involvement for the French. With a wealth of serious footballing details to debate, a supposed new dawn for the Welsh dragon, England and Ireland's midweek matches, not to mention such substantial matters as rampant racism abroad and the cranking up of the managerial merry-go-round, one might have thought Jimmy Hill and his media compadres might have given us plenty of food for thought on his Sunday breakfast programme.

It is a sad reflection of our society that they only spent the equivalent of injury time during the ninety minutes of an extended show discussing these interesting and important subjects. The bulk of their "badinage" was given over to the bawdy banalities surrounding the salacious titillation splashed across the red-tops. I set out this week determined to avoid any references to Ulrikagate and Fergiegrope, save to offer my sympathies to Sir Alex. At least Hugh Grant got a BJ for all his botheration!