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French prepare for siege of Paris

Second leg of playoff has undertones of war as Olivier Giroud says he is 'ready to die' to beat Ukraine to World Cup.

Last updated: 18 Nov 2013 23:33
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Andriy Yarmolenko breached the French defences with a penalty in the first leg in Kiev [AP]

Images of war are rarely far away from the world of sport.

Football has its midfield generals, while the "big guns" are brought up to attack at corners. Strikers even aim volleys at goal, which technically should involve the simultaneous firing of a unit of rifles, muskets, or artillery pieces. Former England manager Kevin Keegan once told Paul Scholes to "drop hand-grenades" in midfield.

Rugby is often described as war itself. Players are weapons. Teams have armouries. They make spear-tackles. Captains have their lieutenants.

This may be annoying for some people, given the gravity of the one and the perceived frivolity of the other. But as sport is also the closest you can come to war without risking taking a bullet, it's also perfectly natural.

Put simply, it's the most fun you can have without your fatigues on.

Those of a non-military sporting bent probably shouldn't read the buildup in the French press to Les Bleus' second-leg World Cup playoff against Ukraine (and yes, the playoffs are called les barrages in French), which they go into 2-0 down from the first leg.

"General mobilisation!" urged Direct Matin on its front page, which may have made some readers wonder if the Prussians had invaded.

Revolting

In L'Équipe, French football president Noël Le Graët was "sounding the revolt" to the players, while Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud spoke of "replacing one soldier with another" as regards the suspension of Ukrainian defenders Artem Fedetski and Oleksander Koutcher.

At this rate you have to hope no-one at the Stade de France takes the call to arms too literally during the singing of the Marseillaise on Tuesday night.

I'm ready to die on the pitch. It's a very big word, but I have a great hope and a lot of rage within me.

Olivier Giroud, France striker

It's easy for all this to look ridiculous, but anyone who has ever played sport at all seriously knows that you have to conjure up some sort of martial spirit to have any chance of winning. War-talk in sport doesn't belittle war. It just borrows its lexicon for descriptive purposes.

And given France's position going into the game, the description is perfectly justified.

After finishing second in Group I to the world and European champions, Spain, the general feeling was that France had dodged a cannonball by avoiding Portugal in the draw and that Ukraine – while to be spoken of in glowing terms as a worthy opponent – would be swept away by a French cavalry charge led by Franck Ribéry.

As it happened, surveillance of the battlefield revealed a rout of the French by Ukraine, leaving France with the forlorn hope of overturning a 2-0 deficit – something that has never been done in World Cup playoffs in Europe.

Enter the vanguard.

"I'm ready to die on the pitch," Giroud told L'Équipe.

"It's a very big word, but I have a great hope and a lot of rage within me. I hope that this will transform into positive energy for their (Ukraine's) return.

"We did not know how to respond on Friday. We have great desire to do so on Tuesday, to make proud all the people who love us. We will do it."

Emulating the greats

It is to be hoped that Giroud lives to see Wednesday, but at least it's clear that this French team – champions of the world in 1998 – are prepared to try to emulate their warrior fathers.

Elsewhere, someone who is a warrior of a kind, taekwondo black-belt Zlatan Ibrahimovic, prepares to do battle for Sweden against Cristiano Ronaldo when Portugal take a 1-0 scoreline into their second leg in Stockholm.

Of course, in the thick of the fight these two will be nowhere near each other. Ibrahimovic is a striker and Ronaldo is as near to a striker as a midfielder ever gets. They'll be too concerned about their personal duels with defenders to spend much time with each other.

But you can see why Sweden-Portugal is billed as Ibrahimovic-Ronaldo. Two very exciting players, two fairly exciting teams.

"We respect the Swedish national team a lot, they've got an excellent group of players and of course they've got Ibrahimovic, everybody knows his quality," said Portugal coach Paulo Bento.

"But we will try to do as we did in the first game and try to control Sweden as a whole, and not only a single player."

The other decisive European ties on Tuesday see Iceland attempt to reach the World Cup for the first time when they travel to Zagreb to face Croatia, with the scores still at 0-0, while Greece have a 3-1 advantage as they play Romania in Bucharest for a place at Brazil 2014.

Paul Rhys is a sports correspondent and presenter writing for Al Jazeera from Paris. Follow him on @PaulRhys_Sport or go to paulrhys.com.

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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