It’s hardly surprising Laurent Blanc was in such a relaxed, jovial mood at tonight’s press conference, joking with journalists from England, France and China as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Monday’s game against England may represent his tournament debut as a coach – and the moment he has been working towards for two years – yet Blanc’s overall experience is such that there is no danger of the occasion getting to him.
The last time the 46-year-old appeared at a UEFA European Championship, in 2000, he ended up going home with the trophy. Blanc is one of the most decorated figures in the game. He has been here before. The same, however, cannot be said of his players.
In terms of international experience, France are relative novices. As many as 14 of the 23 players present have not even competed at a major finals yet. Only three – Franck Ribéry, Florent Malouda and Alou Diarra – have won a match. On average, they have 23 caps, the lowest of the 16 competing nations.
From the outside it might look as Blanc is merely trying to take the pressure of his players by downplaying their chances. After all, a squad boasting the attacking talents of Karim Benzema, Ribéry, Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa, Malouda, Mathieu Valbuena and Olivier Giroud should surely consider themselves as contenders.
Yet the harsh reality is that the majority of these players have not proved themselves at international level. “The French people are right to feel sceptical,” Blanc said tonight. “We are no longer among the top nations. We can only change people’s perception of us by winning matches.”
“We’re ready to start winning,” Ribéry told me on Thursday. “We feel we can do well here,” confided Benzema. “Now it’s time for us to show that on the pitch.” The Real Madrid CF striker is spot on. The time for talking is over. France are blessed with some very talented individuals. Of that there is no doubt. But do they have the other ingredients required to succeed at the highest level? Events at the Donbass Arena on Monday evening will go some way to providing an answer.