By Noah Davis, SI.com
Thierry Henry has not been in good form for Barcelona, but he remains capable of being a game-changer.
Stu Forster/Getty Images
Through April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with France. Click here for the full archive.
Despite being turned into a villain (unfairly?) by the rest of the world for his handball that led to France's clinching a World Cup berth, Thierry Henry remains respected and loved by the French fans and his teammates. He's Captain France through and through, and although the 32-year-old's form at Barcelona has slipped, the former FIFA World Player of the Year finalist can still change a game or even a tournament with his brilliant knack for finishing. Henry led the team with four goals during the qualifying campaign and also chipped in two assists. He'll need to be even more productive in South Africa.
Franck Ribery is one of the world's best players and pranksters. (He'd certainly be No. 1 if you combined those traits. Ribery once crashed Bayern Munich's team bus after "hijacking" the vehicle as a joke.) His pace, creativity and deadly accuracy pose so many problems for defenses that he creates room for youngster Yoann Gourcuff to roam on the opposite flank. The Bordeaux attacker routinely exhibits moments of brilliance, especially when given time. When he and Ribery are on their game, lightning strikes all over the pitch. That said, the French offense can sputter, the most obvious example being a 1-0 win over the Faroe Islands during qualifying.Defensive central midfielder Lassana Diarra holds the key to shutting down opponents. He transferred from Arsenal to Portsmouth in January 2008 in order to find playing time in hopes of making his country's European Championship team. The ploy worked; the 25-year-old who now plays for Real Madrid didn't feature in any of the squad's three matches, but he took over when Claude Makélélé retired. Coach Raymond Domenech insists on playing Eric Abidal out of position in the middle of the back four, and while William Gallas, 32, remains solid despite his advancing years, Diarra will need to track back and clean up the mess.
What to watch for
This team, of course, should be better. On paper, it's one the best sides in the world with an attacking force that rivals any other country's. In reality, not so much. Despite being heavy favorites to win Europe's Group 7, France finished behind Serbia and needed a playoff to advance to South Africa. It defeated Ireland under controversial circumstances and will be booed every step of the way. Ironically, Domenech, who knows a thing or two about hearing catcalls (some French fans were pushing for his ouster during and after a 2-0 home loss to Spain in early March), may be the only man who can keep Les Bleus focused. The French Football Federation picked Pezula Resort Hotel and Spa in remote Knysna as the squad's base, and the 1998 World Cup winners will avoid distraction as much as possible.
The group is not an easy one, though France caught a break by getting drawn into South Africa's foursome. The European side didn't earn a seed, meaning it could have faced Brazil, Spain or the Netherlands, but instead finds itself paired with the host nation as well as Mexico and Uruguay. Les Blues, the runner-up to Italy in 2006 (the Zinedine Zidane headbutt for those who need their memory jogged), should advance out of Group A. That said, nothing is ever certain, especially with the French. While Zidane sat with an injury, they famously bombed out of the 2002 World Cup just months after winning the 2001 Confederations Cup. This team features a better mix of talent, but no one -- maybe not even his players -- trusts Domenech. Pure class and the unifying force provided by an angry world that wants to see them fail should keep the French together, but if things go south, they could fall apart very quickly.
Key match in group stage
June 17 vs. Mexico. Simply put, the winner takes Group A.
Celebrity scouting report: Ronny Turiaf*
They are struggling a little bit but I think they are going to find a mix of the older generation and the younger generation and catch fire at the right time. ... Right now they have different styles of play between the two generations. And injuries have a lot to do with it because it is forcing guys to play out of position -- just like basketball. But I am not worried about it. ... Henry is one of my best friends in the world. I met him through [San Antonio Spurs guard and Frenchman] Tony Parker. We both went to the World Cup final in '06 and we saw France lose to Italy, so hopefully when we go to the final this time we are going to see them win. I am 100 percent going to South Africa. ... This team knows what it takes to win. It has the experience that comes with being in those big games. So that gives me confidence that they can pull it all together."
*The Golden State Warriors center is from the French Caribbean island of Martinique. As told to Frank Hughes.