France seek to unite off soccer pitch, prove point on it

By Patrick Vignal

TIGNES, France (Reuters) - Divided and miserable two years ago, France have pledged to unite and have fun at the World Cup in South Africa to avoid a repeat of their Euro 2008 flop.

Since arriving at the scenic Alpine resort of Tignes for a week-long training camp, the players have taken part in a series of unusual group activities in search of harmony and "healing."

Coach Raymond Domenech, who was surprisingly left in charge after his side's group-stage exit from Euro 2008, made his players hike up a glacier and participate in biathlon and dune buggy races.

It is all part of Domenech's masterplan to ensure his players are united off the pitch before proving a point on it.

"We can feel that the group is uniting," defender Sebastien Squillaci told reporters as the team geared up for the June 11-July 11 finals in South Africa.

Squillaci added: "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."

Unpopular France coach Domenech, who will be replaced by Laurent Blanc following the tournament, is keen to ensure there is no repeat of the difficult relationship he had with his team two years ago.

"What we need to heal is wounded pride and we need to do it fast," said Domenech.


The players, whose popularity has plunged to a depressing low after a string of dismal displays and a struggle to qualify from an easy group, are keen to follow Domenech's advice.

"The coach likes the players to show responsibility and we want to do something for him," defender Gael Clichy said.

"He made it clear to us that we had the keys and if we were not good on the pitch, there was not much we could hope for."

It might take more for France to behave as a coherent team instead of a bunch of gifted but erratic individuals when they face hosts South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay in Group A.

For the first time in years, however, the players seem to be enjoying themselves and their coach, once famous for dry remarks and undecipherable comments, appear to be relaxed and confident.

"I have a good feeling with this group," Domenech said. "We shouldn't fare too badly."

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)