France leave mountains with team spirit sky high

By Patrick Vignal

TIGNES, France (Reuters) - A week in the scenic French Alps seems to have done wonders for France, who now have a healthy Williams Gallas and a vastly improved mood in the team.

France leave their picturesque base on Tuesday with their 23-man squad for the June 11-July 11 finals in South Africa finalized and in a relaxed and confident mood after a number of concerns were overcome.

Coach Raymond Domenech, who has been under fire since his side's Euro 2008 flop, organized several strange group activities in search of harmony such as a hike up a glacier, an introduction to biathlon and even a dune buggy race.

The players loved it, even Gallas, who survived a fright when his buggy rolled over, and all the players said they could feel a genuine team spirit blooming.

The man France fans love to hate, Domenech even cracked a few smiles and did not lose his cool when midfielder Lassana Diarra was ruled out of the World Cup by illness on Saturday.

The coach eventually decided late on Monday that Diarra would not be replaced after seeing defender Gallas, who had been doubtful because of a sore left calf, train without any problems.

The coach, who had brought 24 players to Tignes because of concerns about Gallas, found himself with 23 after Diarra left and decided those would travel to South Africa after Gallas was ruled fit to play.

SURPRISING MOOD

"Then we found ourselves with 23 players so we no longer needed to make a choice because that group here keep showing us that we can trust them. Those 23 players will take us all the way."

Saying France, who needed an infamous Thierry Henry handball to qualify through a playoff at the expense of Ireland, will win the World Cup may seem a little premature.

The mood in the ski village, surrounded by rugged snow-capped peaks and almost like a ghost town in the spring, however, has surprised many observers.

All the France players have been saying that they were having fun together and were determined to soon prove their worth on the pitch.

Such statements were hardly ever heard before Euro 2008, where a miserable atmosphere and a rift between the younger players in the squad and the more experienced ones marred a campaign that ended with a group-stage exit.

Domenech, who will be replaced by Laurent Blanc after the World Cup, may feel he has no pressure, with French fans and media generally feeling the team has no chance to make an impact on the pitches of South Africa.

The coach even made a bold move in the penultimate training session in Tignes, fielding a 4-3-3 formation instead of his preferred, more defensive 4-2-3-1 system.

The fans watching the session applauded, hoping the cautious tactics that have frustrated them for years might soon make way for a more exciting brand of football.

France will play Costa Rica on Wednesday in Lens in the first of three warm-up games for the World Cup, where they will face hosts South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay in Group A.

(Editing by Patrick Johnston)