KNYSNA // The France players preparing for the World Cup have a very selective memory. While they all seem to have forgotten about what happened just two years ago, they can remember precisely events of four years back. Reluctant to talk about France's Euro 2008 flop, the team are more than happy to recall the previous World Cup in Germany and their surprise run to the final.
"There are similarities [with 2006]," Alou Diarra, the midfielder, told reporters at the team's base in Knysna, Western Cape. "We're in the same state of mind." The former world champions are determined to silence the many fans and observers predicting they will not survive the group stage. None wants a repeat of 2008 when tensions in the squad marred a dismal campaign which ended after the first round without a win and just one goal scored. Sebastien Squillaci, the Sevilla defender, was one of the few who agreed to talk about that experience and the reported rift between the youngsters and the more experienced players, but only to say things had changed.
"We can feel that the group is uniting," Squillaci said. "I wouldn't say there was a bad atmosphere in 2008 but it's true that there was some discrepancy between the generations. It's different here." In an effort to make his team bond, Raymond Domenech, the coach, has organised a host of exotic activities such as a hike up a glacier, mountain biking and a dune buggy race. The players visited the French Alps, the shores of Tunisia and the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion before reaching South Africa, where they are staying at a resort that overlooks the Knysna lagoon.
They arrived confident and cheerful despite slumping to an embarrassing 1-0 defeat by China in their final warm-up game. "We're starting that great adventure with a real team spirit," said Cedric Carrasso, the reserve goalkeeper. However, not everything is different from 2008 with the team, which will face Uruguay, Mexico and South Africa in Group A, still distrustful of the outside world and notably the media.
William Gallas has decided not to talk to the press for the duration of the finals and Domenech has told reporters he only came to meet them because he was obliged to. It follows constant media criticism and scepticism from the fans, whose lack of faith in the team is understandable given that France has produced some uninspired performances in recent years and needed a controversial play-off win to get to the finals.
France, however, have a record for overcoming obstacles, not only in 2006 but also in 1998 when a large section of the French media had nothing but scorn until they eventually triumphed. Bacary Sagna, the right-back, who was 15 then but can remember that tournament well, is dreaming of a similar scenario in South Africa. "I think we can use all that criticism to bounce back, a bit like what happened in 1998," Sagna said.