France hope to avoid November rain

French football may have to weather the storm as challenges loom, but a former World Cup player remembers sunnier times.

France defender Patrice Evra escaped punishment after calling a group of TV pundits 'tramps' [AFP]

World Cup qualifiers are known as les barrages in France, which seems about right given the bombardment French football has had to endure in recent years.

Failure to reach the finals in Brazil next summer would be, in terms of a storyline, the natural next chapter given the lows they have experienced since their superlative win on home soil in 1998.

As Les Bleus prepare to play Ukraine on November 15 in Kiev, and then the decisive second leg four days later in Paris, most of the fire they’ve been dodging so far has been of the friendly variety.

Defender Patrice Evra graced the front page of L’Equipe last week, with his face among the national flags of France’s potential playoff rivals alongside the headline, “Which adversary for Les Bleus?”.

It came after the Manchester United player insulted a group of TV pundits, including World Cup winner Bixente Lizarazu, and reminded many here of the role he played as captain of the team that revolted against Raymond Domenech at South Africa 2010.

Pascal Chimbonda came from nowhere to be a part of France’s World Cup squad in 2006 [GALLO/GETTY]

The prevailing view has been that he escaped punishment from coach Didier Deschamps and French football president Noel Le Graet so that no more discord would be sown in the squad at such a crucial time.

Protecting the national team’s chances also seems to have been a reason behind the Ligue 1 clubs calling a strike 10 days after the qualifiers, as they protest against President Francois Hollande’s tax laws.

France are favourites against Ukraine, but they were favourites against Bulgaria in 1993 as well.

One player who was never expected to be a part of France’s World Cup plans was Pascal Chimbonda.

He told Al Jazeera that the squad he was a part of in 2006 – and that ended up losing a final against Italy made famous by Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi – was a different beast to the squads that have come since.

“It has been a problem of immaturity. We in 2006 were more mature and with responsible players,” Chimbonda, 34, said.

“But France will qualify during the playoffs without any worries and will go to Brazil. The Ukrainians are there to be beaten.”

Unlikely candidates

Just under a year before that World Cup, Chimbonda arrived in the English Premier League as a right-back for newly-promoted Wigan Athletic – themselves one of the unlikeliest candidates for a spot among football’s elite.

But rather than going straight back down, Wigan were second behind Chelsea in November, ended up finishing 10th, and lost the League Cup final to Manchester United.

Chimbonda embodied the enterprising spirit that had made Wigan a success and was rewarded with a place in the Premier League’s team of the year – and a ticket to Germany.

“Being among the 24 best French players during the World Cup was the most beautiful moment of my career,” says Chimbonda, who nevertheless did not get any playing time and watched the final as an unused understudy to Willy Sagnol.

France will qualify during the playoffs without any worries and will go to Brazil. The Ukrainians are there to be beaten.

by Pascal Chimbonda, former France player

“It was a surprise for everybody, but I think that I merited the place because I had a great season.”

Chimbonda went on to play two years with Tottenham Hotspur before a downturn in his fortunes saw him without a club for the entire 2012-13 campaign.

He was playing non-league football in England this year before finally being signed by third-tier Carlisle United two weeks ago.

“It’s truly great to be back playing football and great to find the pleasure in it again,” he said.

“I was a bit apprehensive before my first match because it had been a long time that I was not playing, but after that it went well and everything was good.”

Chimbonda will hope next summer will be a short holiday from his day-job while he watches former teammates like Franck Ribery and Eric Abidal on the pitch in Brazil.

If the barrages are safely bypassed, could they prove everyone wrong and win a second World Cup?

“It will be difficult, but we must always believe in it,” Chimbonda says.

“But it will be a miracle.”

Source: Al Jazeera