Diarra’s senseless remarks highlight France’s lack of leadership

MAYBE the spirit of Patrick Vieira lives on after all.

The midfielder, still France’s captain, was no stranger to some rows in his time, and whether he was on the pitch sometimes made little difference at all (the tunnel bust-up with Manchester United in 2005 springs to mind).

And yet there was something unnecessary about whatever Lassana Diarra said to Keith Andrews after the final whistle: France had got the result they needed and the last thing Raymond Domenech would have wanted to face on Wednesday was an angry opposition with added motivation.

You can never tell if Vieira’s presence may have stopped Diarra from making any comments but there is still a feeling in the France set-up that his absence is an important one. After all, a heated conversation just before the Ireland game between stand-in skipper Thierry Henry and Domenech was said to centre around his decision to omit Vieira from the squad for these games.

Zinedine Zidane’s was not a lone dissenting voice when the squad was announced and there was no Vieira. “What France needs is a big player for the two matches ahead,” said Zidane. “Pat has the experience and the talent for these games, and you need guys like Patrick Vieira in the France team.”

Even Domenech himself has admitted that France’s lack of leadership is a problem. It has been more than two years since Vieira captained France in a competitive match (the 1-0 home defeat to Scotland). Since then he has played only three friendly matches. In the following 24 internationals, France have had six different captains (Henry 14 times, Thuram seven, Vieira, Gallas, Abidal all twice, Govou once).

When Domenech picked a half-fit Vieira for the qualifying game against Romania 13 months ago, he justified it by saying: “Pat brings a lot to the team. Even just by his presence, he is very important to have around the place for the other players. When he is on form, he is indispensable to the French team.”

And yet, despite playing in five of Inter’s last six games, Vieira was overlooked for the games against Ireland.

Henry currently has the armband, and the forward has admitted that there have been times when he has missed Vieira’s presence in the side. When the midfielder pulled out minutes before the game in Romania, France started slowly and were 2-0 down inside 15 minutes.

“At one stage I was on the pitch and I said to myself, ‘Is Pat here, is he back amongst us? Damn, he’s not playing.’ You always need a player like him.”

But the fact that France pulled it back to 2-2 showed a team spirit that had been lacking before.

“That game proved this team has a soul,” said Henry.

However, despite Henry’s public comments, it was only in the September draw with Serbia, when France were a goal and a man down inside 10 minutes, that the Barcelona star really saw genuine team spirit emerge.

“When I bumped into Titi (Henry) recently, he told me that game was the first time he felt a real team spirit emerging in the team,” midfielder Franck Ribery recalled.

This is the key difference between this France side and the successful ones of the past: in 1998 the clear-cut leaders were Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc (now both successful coaches) while more recently, Zidane, Claude Makelele and indeed Vieira donned the mantle.

Of the other options, William Gallas showed how captaincy negatively affects his performances at Arsenal, while in goal, both Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda are young, inhibited and lack the aura of Fabien Barthez.

Nicolas Anelka is one of the most experienced players but his quiet personality and shunning of the limelight does not make him a natural choice. When Eric Abidal was captain for the June friendly against Turkey, he failed to impress.

One of the biggest problems Domenech has had is the historically hierarchical system of the French camp. During the glory years, young players were not encouraged to speak up but rather to wait their turn.

Domenech tried to change this at Euro 2008, and encouraged the younger players to have more of a say. This led to Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema reportedly upsetting older players with comments that showed a lack of respect, and a generation clash that dogged them during the tournament. Domenech is torn on this issue, sometimes saying he needs the old-timers like Vieira and at other times egging on the youngsters to show leadership.

Vieira’s omission suggests that Domenech has taken the latter option this week and Diarra’s late intervention has backed that up. It remains to be seen whether Diarra has helped his own team or actually assisted Ireland.

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