10/30 | Aimé Jacquet: Turning Doubters Into Believers

Aime Jacquet | FI

Not many people remember Le Tournoi. The tournament was the dress rehearsal to the World Cup, held in 1997 and consisted of four teams – Italy, Brazil, England and hosts France. Played with a simple round-robin format in the summer of that year, its prominence mostly comes for Roberto Carlos’ stunning 40-yard free-kick which defied all laws of logic and physics. But for one man, this mini-tournament was particularly memorable, although not in a positive light. That man is Aimé Jacquet, the coach of the French national team at the time whose side finished third in their home tournament and had chants of “laisser, laisser!” (leave, leave!) directed at him.

The eight-day tournament wasn’t too pleasant to him. They opened with a draw against Brazil, (the game which included that insane Roberto Carlos goal), then lost to England through an Alan Shearer strike and ended with a 2-2 draw against Italy, finishing third in the competition by virtue of goal difference. Jacquet came into the tournament with the pressure of a nation on his shoulders and the eight days that followed didn’t make him any more friends. The football wasn’t pretty, the results weren’t pleasing and with the World Cup on home turf just a year away, he faced a harrowing amount of demand from a nation that loves their football.

The French Football Federation had two clear options: stick with a man with a proven track record at club level and reduce the risk and uncertainty just 12 months before the World Cup or give him the boot and try a more assuring option. They went against the backlash and stuck with Jacquet. Most would’ve felt that the decision would prove to be costly, but the FFF perhaps gave it a more objective approach. Perhaps, they saw a person with an effective, albeit unpleasant footballing ideology. Perhaps, they saw a person who could handle the hopes of a nation seeing as his playing career prepared him so well. Or perhaps, they just looked up the record of Aimé Jacquet, the manager.

Born and bred in Sail-sous-Couzan, a commune in central France, Jacquet’s playing career was highly successful. He was a part of the all-conquering Saint-Etienne team which dominated France in the 1960s and ‘70s, playing as the pivot in midfield in over 200 games for the club, winning Ligue 1 titles and two Coupe de France honours amongst other trophies. He then ended his playing career with bitter rivals Lyon with a two-year spell and then went straight into management at the same club.

Four years following that, he finally left the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and went far west to take up the reigns at Bordeaux, where he enjoyed another trophy-laden spell. In nine years, he made European football prominent in the city, doing well in the European Cup and even adding three further league titles and two cups to his exceptional CV. With the likes of Jean Tigana and René Girard in the side, Bordeaux enjoyed a period of sustained success, but that ended in 1989 with Jacquet’s dismissal due to administrative problems at the club and he would take on lower-league roles with Montpellier and Nancy.

In 1991, Jacquet was appointed as the director for the National Technical Training Centre, or Clairefontaine, as it’s more commonly known and that is where his relationship with the national side started. Just a year later he became assistant to Gérard Houllier with the national team and after their failure to qualify for the World Cup of 1994 in the United States, Houllier departed and Jacquet was promoted, initially on a temporary basis and after encouraging initial results, on a permanent basis.

Jacquet’s first few decisions in charge of the national team proved to be stern ones. He initially wanted the team to be based around the flamboyant Eric Cantona, who was in the form of his life with Manchester United in the Premier League and wanted to shape this new generation around him. Jacquet gave him the captaincy and made him the team’s premier outlet in attack. But the incident at Selhurst Park in 1995, where he kicked a fan and earned himself a ban from his club and the English FA for eight months, saw him stripped off the captaincy and out of contention in Jacquet’s long-term plans for his side.

Another key decision happened to involve more troublemaking, older players. Ahead of the European Championships of 1996 in England, Jacquet revamped the squad with his selections of a younger, newer breed for France. In place of Eric Cantona came Zinedine Zidane, who took over the playmaking duties and other notable absentees were Jean-Pierre Papin, a hitman for club and country in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as well as David Ginola, the Newcastle United winger who was one of the Premier League’s finest footballers at the time. The moves were of high risk, but for Jacquet, they brought high reward.

Buy an iconic Zidane poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy an iconic Zidane poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

Unsurprisingly, the lack of known talent carried a wave of pessimism from the local faithful and many believed Jacquet was incompetent of coaching the national side. His philosophy wasn’t too fanciable either, with his defensive approach involving big, muscular footballers at the back and in the middle of the park making the football lacklustre to the entertainment enthusiast. Largely reliant on the counterattack as well, his methods didn’t go down too well, but his fresh, new roster stood by him and he stood by them, and that proved to be the recipe for success in England that year.

Going into the tournament with a squad that had an average age of 26.13 – the youngest being the team’s most skilful, Zinedine Zidane. The youthfulness of the side would serve the country well. Drawn in a group consisting of Spain, Bulgaria and Romania, they made it through as group winners, winning two and drawing the match against the Furja Roja. Later in the quarter-finals, they would overcome the Netherlands on penalties, showing perfection in their spot-kicks by scoring all of them in a rather dire affair.

Against all odds, they were through to the semi-finals, where the Czech Republic, in one of their best eras as an independent nation had their number this time in the penalty shootouts. Once again perfect in their strikes, it took a Reynald Pedros miss to allow the Czechs to go through after another goalless affair. The results temporarily turned some doubts into belief as France’s encouraging outcome, despite the lack of goals, gave Jacquet some leverage in his job and gave him a go at least until the World Cup. His risk-taking was appreciated and his fearlessness in approaching difficult decisions paid off. He was the man to lead his nation at their home World Cup.

However, the belief was only brief as the following months and those in the build-up to the big kick-off were marred with confusion and the local fans and media continued their agendas, believing that the manager was incompetent. The disaster at Le Tournoi the following year did not help his case and just before the tournament, his error of naming 28 players in the roster instead of the allotted 23 led to further ridicule, with L’Equipe, France’s premier sporting daily enhancing their belief that the wrong man was at the helm.

His footballing style was the main reason behind the distrust. Just like at Euro 96, he was heading into the World Cup with his preferred 4-3-2-1 set-up. This was to accommodate the attacking talents of the majestic Zinedine Zidane and make up for his lack of defensive obligations as the midfield three of Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit and Christian Karembeu provided the solidity and tightened their defensive grip. The width largely came from the full-backs, Lillian Thuram on the right and Bixente Lizarazu on the left while in the middle, it was Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc protecting the goalkeeper, Fabian Barthez.

Up top, supporting Zidane was Youri Djorkaeff, who had similar freedom as his attacking midfield partner and was given the free role and these two worked with Stéphane Guivarc’h, an unfancied name with a rather unconventional role. Guivarc’h was a forward of limited ability but had immense ability in holding-up play and keeping the opposition busy, thus allowing the more talented Djorkaeff and Zidane to work their magic. The strength and brilliance came from a midfield five tailor-made for the role, but it was the cohesion that Jacquet would rely on and he would head into the World Cup with his tried-and-tested methods, despite the outcry from the public.

They would start off impressively, winning all three of their group games, beating South Africa and Saudi Arabia 3-0 and 4-0 respectively, while overcoming Denmark 2-1 in what was their first real challenge of the tournament. Jacquet was also quite flexible, testing out his fringe players against the lesser sides while also giving the others a chance after Zidane’s sending-off and subsequent suspension against Saudi Arabia and Denmark. The results raised optimism as they were one of only two nations to qualify with a perfect record (Argentina being the other) and were up against Paraguay in the following round.

Still without Zidane, France lacked the creative spark and Jacquet was forced to experiment again, as he put out two centre-forwards for this clash in a 4-4-2 as Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet led the line with a midfield of Bernard Diomède, Petit, Deschamps and Djorkaeff. With the sternness and the lack of attacking flair, it was the defensive side that was more encouraging has France had to labour to a 1-0 win through the golden goal, courtesy of Laurent Blanc six minutes before time. Although the score-line seems narrow, France were rarely troubled, and the result set up a clash against Italy in the quarter-finals.

Now back with their main attacking outlet, Zinedine Zidane, Jacquet reverted to his 4-3-2-1. The World Cup performances were strikingly similar to the ones at the Euros two years prior. Largely reliant on their solidity, they would nullify the opposition before waiting for their move and would rarely score in the process. Against Italy, the game would finish goalless again and it would take a shoot-out to settle the game.

It was strange that in a match containing so much attacking talent including Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri, Roberto Baggio (a rather aging one) and the French side, the styles of the managers would complement to a rather dire affair. In the end, luck would favour the French again as Demetrio Albertini and Luigi Di Biagio’s failed spot-kicks would prove costly and the Italians were asked to make the short trip home.

In the semi-finals, France were up against another great attacking outlet in the form of Croatia. The Eastern Europeans were making their debut as an independent nation in the World Cup finals and impressively made it far into the last four. With the likes of Zvonimir Boban and top-scorer Davor Šuker amongst their ranks, Croatia would take the lead through the latter, but were pegged back immediately by Lillian Thuram, who took advantage of Jacquet’s deployment of a heavy attacking role for his full-backs as Thuram found himself in a position he ideally wouldn’t be in and toe-poked the ball, having won it himself near the Croatian box to start the move.

The tie wouldn’t go beyond the 90 minutes here as Thuram would add another goal, taking advantage of Zidane’s free-roaming role, which allowed him to open up play in the build-up to the move from deep in midfield. Thuram’s resilience to win the ball after losing out initially was key and his action high up in the opposition half was influential in this success. For Jacquet, it was a win to turn the doubters into believers ahead of the final and showed the perfect implementation of his ideology. The same ideology would come up in the final, as Jacquet’s meticulous planning and the team’s earnest execution would reap great rewards.

They were up against Brazil, the undoubted favourites, defending champions and the team with the most lethal footballer in the world – Ronaldo, who was on fire in France. They were, however, aided by two factors. The immense home advantage who were, initially, pessimistic, but now louder than ever and were expected to be at their best at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. And also, a rather unfortunate case of Ronaldo getting convulsive fits just before the final which put his participation (and usual impact on the game) in doubt.

Jacquet, however, made plans whether or not Ronaldo played, and they worked perfectly. Split in three separate courses of action, it was to isolate the key areas of Brazil and take advantage of their weaknesses. The first thing Jacquet worked on was taking advantage of his full-backs. Thuram and Lizarazu were unbreakable in France and this time, they had to be on top form not only in an attacking sense, but also in their primary roles of defenders. Ronaldo started the final, and one of the main reasons for his success in the summer of 1998 was the support provided to him by his partners in crime: Rivaldo out on the left and Leonardo on the right.

The combination of Thuram and Karembeu on the right side as well as Lizarazu and Petit on the left side worked well to isolate a groggy Ronaldo. The defending was mostly man-oriented as Leonardo and Rivaldo were kept quiet, forcing Ronaldo to drop deeper and reducing his influence up top where he is most effective. Ronaldo’s partner, Bebeto couldn’t work his magic either and despite France missing Laurent Blanc following his red card in the semi-final and his deputy Frank LeBeouf playing instead, Brazil’s 4-2-2-2 was nullified completely.

The next course of action was the work of Guivarc’h, showing exactly why he had been such a prominent figure in the tournament, despite other, more talented forwards such as Trezeguet and Henry waiting on the bench. Guivarc’h worked with Djorkaeff, who operated as the second striker to isolate Brazil. Jacquet identified Dunga, the team’s captain and prime playmaker as the most dangerous force in midfield and he deployed his two forward players to maintain consistent pressure on Dunga to reduce his effect on the game.

Although Dunga wasn’t closely marked, he was kept quiet and was largely forced to play pointless horizontal passes or harmless diagonal long-passes as France closed down their opposition’s main source of inspiration. His tactical absence had the follow-on effect on his partner in midfield, César Sampaio, who seemed clueless and devoid of options while on the ball. This proved to be a masterstroke from Aimé Jacquet as two of Brazil’s key sources of attack were shut down by his team working together on toning down their strengths. But the deciding factor was the work on their weaknesses, which Jacquet identified to come from Brazil’s work in set-pieces.

The first French goal came from an in-swinging corner as France exposed Brazil’s zonal marking technique. Zidane ran in and closer to the ball from almost outside the box as Ronaldo stood and watched. He was unmarked, free to head and blasted the ball into the net as Brazil could just stare. In a quick move, it was easily identifiable that Brazil were unprepared for this onslaught as the ease of the French move showed their impeccable practice of the situation. France took the lead, and the next goal was a carbon copy.

Coming on the stroke of half-time, this came from an in-swinging corner down the right side. Brazil deployed their zonal marking once again and Zidane was free to run here as well. He started his stride, overpowered a defender and found himself unmarked once again, before sending the ball into the bottom left corner of the Brazilian net. Two simple, yet effective moves and France went into halftime with a comfortable lead. Towards the end, Marcel Desailly was given his marching orders – France’s third sending-off at the finals, and Emmanuel Petit added a third right at the death, coming from a counterattack.

If there was one match that described Jacquet’s approach to football, this would be it. Ronaldo’s ill health and the home advantage had a hand, but to pin this success on the grandest stage of football down to those two factors would be massively reductionist. Jacquet was flawless, well-planned, well-organised and saw the game out to perfection. What started with little to no hope ended with maximum jubilation as France won the World Cup for the first time ever on home turf. Jacquet did indeed turn doubters into believers over the course of the tournament and this win, against all odds, etched his name in French football folklore.

Was he a revolutionary in terms of tactics? Not at all. What he did was basic. Impeccable planning combined with immaculate execution from his players resulted in the best possible result. Although the 4-3-2-1 had never truly been adopted at the World Cup finals, he made it work spotlessly. The extensive use of full-backs, the overly-defensive approach and the use of Stéphane Guivarc’h, who despite never scoring in the tournament, was extremely significant. In Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid, he was described as “the worst centre-forward to win the World Cup” due to his lack of technical prowess.

Nevertheless, this was a success all around. For France, this brought the first major tournament success since Euro 1984 and their first World Cup – something the generations of Just Fontaine and Michel Platini failed to achieve. For the players, they began an era of long-term success, adding a European Championships title two years later and another appearance in the final in 2006. For Aimé Jacquet, he defied the cynics and proved that the decision to not let go of him after Le Tournoi was worth it.