CAPE TOWN, June 10 – Former champions France go into their opening World Cup game against Uruguay in Cape Town on Friday battling a salvo of criticism, with nothing but victory enough to satisfy the sceptics.
Raymond Domenech’s team have been in underwhelming form, losing 1-0 to China in a warm-up match last week, which followed a 2-1 win over Costa Rica and a 1-1 draw with Tunisia.
Since arriving in South Africa, they have adopted a siege-like mentality at their luxury five-star resort to focus on the job in hand, training mostly behind closed doors.
This has not gone down well with an irate French media, while Sports Minister Rama Yade caused a stir when she said the team should have shown some "decency" during hard economic times by not choosing such swanky accommodation.
Domenech, who is widely disliked in France and will be replaced by former skipper Laurent Blanc after the tournament, has played down his squad’s troubled build-up.
"To lose against China in our final build-up game hardly pleases me but at the end of the day it remains a preparation match," he said. "Now we get down to the real thing."
The fact that France are here at all still irks some after Thierry Henry’s outrageous handball played such a pivotal role in their play-off victory over Ireland.
If that wasn’t enough, the French team was then rocked by a sex scandal linking members of the team, including star player Franck Ribery, to an under-age call-girl.
The 1998 champion’s consolation is that they are in a relatively easy group that also includes hosts South Africa and Mexico.
With Patrick Vieira failing to make the squad, France’s lone 1998 survivor is Henry, although the veteran Barcelona striker is likely to be used as a super-sub.
William Gallas and Patrick Evra will lead at the back with Jeremy Toulalan and Abou Diaby shoring up midfield.
The emergence of Yoann Gourcuff, the talent of Ribery and the rejuvenation of Nicolas Anelka have given the coach a variety of options in attack, where Andre-Pierre Gignac and Florent Malouda will hope to feature.
For the Uruguayans, it is another chance to relive their glory days.
They collected the 1930 World Cup and repeated the feat in 1950, but since then have rarely made an impact at the global showpiece.
This time round expectations at home are not high and coach Oscar Tabarez is keen to ignore their past.
Instead, he wants to focus on getting the best out of a talented and maturing squad, who trounced Switzerland and Israel 3-1 and 4-1 respectively in recent friendlies.
Tabarez has already named his team for Friday’s clash at Green Point Stadium with defender Mauricio Victorino and midfielder Egidio Arevalo Rios surprise choices.
Victorino, who plays in Chile with Universidad de Chile, replaces Andres Scotti of Colo Colo, also in the Chilean top flight.
Penarol’s Arevalo Rios takes over from Napoli’s Walter Gargano in a 3-4-1-2 formation.
"The system we have chosen can adapt to the different things we could face against France," said Tabarez, nicknamed ‘El Maestro’.
Up front, star striker Diego Forlan will be partnered by Luis Suarez, who scored 35 goals for Ajax in the Dutch championship last season.
KEYS TO MATCH
Diego Forlan v William Gallas
Atletico Madrid striker Forlan has proven time and again that he has an eye for goal and a proven ability against top-class opposition. Gallas, France’s commanding centre-half, will need to be at his consistent best to blunt Uruguay’s ace up-the-sleeve though he has fitness concerns.