France to hike up glacier in search of new heights

By Patrick Vignal

TIGNES, France (Reuters) - Hiking up an awe-inspiring glacier has helped France reach vertiginous heights in the past.

Doing it again, they hope, will help them make it back to the top after a run of dismal performances.

The France players, who started a traditional week-long training camp in the French Alps ski village of Tignes on Tuesday, were preparing to climb to the Grande Motte glacier, overlooking the resort.

"Weather permitting, we will climb up there and stay for the night," team spokesman Francois Manardo said on Wednesday.

France, who have prepared for major tournaments at this spectacular spot surrounded by rugged snow-capped peaks since 1997, organized a hike up one of Europe's largest glaciers, peaking at 3,656 meters, once before.

That was in May 2006 and a few months later they reached the World Cup final in Germany.

The glacier episode, however, sparked controversy, with Gregory Coupet driving out of the France camp because he was furious after fellow goalkeeper Fabien Barthez had refused to participate in the climb.

Coupet was eventually persuaded to return and France have kept faith in their lucky charm.

The former world and European champions, who have made an embarrassing early exit from Euro 2008 and frustrated their fans ever since, are not listed among the World Cup favorites but the Tignes camp might help them heal their wounded pride.


With its lunar landscape and ghost-town feel, most hotels and restaurants being shut at this time of year, Tignes, a stone's throw from Val d'Isere where the world Alpine skiing championships were held last year, offers a surreal atmosphere.

To the France players, however, the village, with its grey, 1970s concrete, multi-storey buildings, is a special place.

"We know we will find here the ideal conditions to prepare the players and make sure all start the World Cup in the best shape," France coach Raymond Domenech told reporters.

"It's mostly individual programs, adapted to what each players needs to do," he added.

The Tignes adventure started around Christmas in 1997, when Aime Jacquet, then the France coach, took 29 players and their families up there.

All had a great time, skiing or just relaxing, and the players promised themselves to shine at the World Cup to be staged in France the following year.

In May 1998 they returned to Tignes, this time to train, and a few months later lifted the World Cup on home soil.

In 2000, they were back, this time to prepare for the European championship, which they won under Roger Lemerre.

Springtime training in Tignes has lost much of its magic since but Domenech hopes it will help the players unite and find the strength to upset the odds just as they did with their run to the World Cup final in Berlin four years ago.

(Writing by Patrick Vignal, editing by Ken Ferris)