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WORLD CUP

France ruffled by Thierry Henry’s presence among Belgian ranks

When France line up for their World Cup semi-final French great Thierry Henry will stare back at them from the Belgium bench -- and the French can't stop talking about it. Some in France have even branded him a "traitor".

France ruffled by Thierry Henry's presence among Belgian ranks
Photo: AFP

Henry, who was part of the France squad that won the 1998 World Cup on home soil, has been assistant manager to Belgium boss Roberto Martinez since 2016 and has helped guide the Red Devils to the last four of a World Cup for just the second time.

“His heart will be divided,” said French captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

“He is first and foremost French. But tomorrow, on a professional level, he will be putting all the passion that drives him into the Belgian team.”

On social media networks in France, where the nation's most hot-headed and opinionated commenters tend to hang out, Henry has even been branded a “traitor” for taking a role with the Belgian national team.

Coming to Henry's defense was former team mate and fellow World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit who slammed the criticism of Henry as “a load of rubbish”.

So too, to be fair did many others, but it's clear the presence of Henry among the Belgian ranks has added extra spice to Tuesday's mouthwatering World Cup semi final clash.

While Henry might be France's all time top scorer his infamous “hand of frog” handball to help France get o the World Cup in 2010 only to help orchestrate a players' strike once there means he is not quite the most loved of France's 1998 World Cup winning side.

The row over Henry's role has been raging for days and if Belgium win and Henry is caught on camera showing any kind of smile, we can expect him to become France's official public enemy number one.

The irony that a player who scored 51 goals in 123 international appearances and helped France become world and European champions is now 
plotting to stop them reaching the final in Russia is not lost on the current French team.

“It will be bizarre to have him up against us,” forward Olivier Giroud said. “He is a living legend of French football.

“He has given so much to the France team and we have got a lot of respect for what he has done.” 

“But of course I would be proud to show 'Titi' that he has chosen the wrong camp,” Giroud added, using Henry's French nickname.

Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne said Henry had talked little about his feelings.

“Perhaps he will sing the Marseillaise (before the game), which I find normal,” De Bruyne said.

“It might be a bit difficult for him but he's working for Belgium now, he wants us to win.”

'Lost sight of him'

After spending most of his career at Premier League club Arsenal and putting down roots in England, 40-year-old Henry has had little involvement in 
French football despite being one of the most popular players that France has ever produced.

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet told AFP pointedly that “we've rather lost sight of him and he has little contact with the federation”.

“Life can be like that sometimes. He has been in England a long time and personally I have very little contact with him,” Le Graet said.

He said Henry had made Belgium into “a team that likes to attack”.

“The strikers go to him, they respect him,” he said.

Henry had little previous coaching experience and the president said he had “probably chosen the right solution” by taking the job of an assistant.

He compared Henry's early steps in coaching to those followed by Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid before he took the top job and went on to win three Champions League titles in a row.

“It is definitely better to start as assistant in a national team, even if he was hoping it would be in Arsenal's staff,” Le Graet said. “There is no 
doubt that he has a career in coaching ahead of him.”

Henry, now sporting a thick beard, is happy to remain in the background as Martinez, a former manager of English clubs Wigan and Everton, does the 
talking to the media.

He joined the Belgium setup in 2016 just after Martinez was appointed and reportedly set to work immediately with forwards Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi.

Though a very different player from the elegant Frenchman, the powerfully built Lukaku showed a touch of Henry in his intelligent dummy that allowed the ball to run through to Nacer Chadli to score Belgium's winner in the thrilling come-from-behind 3-2 win over Japan in the last 16.

Jean-Marie Pfaff, the Belgium goalkeeper when they last reached the World Cup semi-finals in 1986, told AFP's German sports agency SID that Henry would be “France's main opponent” in the semi-final.

“He plays an extremely important role for Martinez,” Pfaff said. “Martinez regularly asks him for advice and he listens to it. I think that Thierry Henry can be credited with some of the tactical ploys.”

Giroud, who like Henry was an Arsenal forward until he joined Chelsea last year, wishes Henry were on the French staff.

“Of course I wish he was with us and was giving advice to me and the other strikers. But we can't be envious. It is not something that shocks me because it is a normal move at this stage in his career.”

France defender Lucas Hernandez said he was sure Henry would be happy if France beat his employers on Wednesday.

“He'll be happy if we win because above all else he is a Frenchman,” the 22-year-old left-back said.

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FOOTBALL

France plans to keep growing women’s game after World Cup disappointment

France faces the challenge of continuing to develop women's football after the bitter disappointment of elimination from the World Cup by the United States.

France plans to keep growing women's game after World Cup disappointment
France players after the defeat against USA. Photo: AFP

“Back to Earth” was how sports daily L'Equipe put it after the host nation lost 2-1 to the holders in a quarter-final played out before a feverish crowd in Paris.

L'Equipe talked of “the disappointment of a shattered adventure” because coach Corinne Diacre's team had dreamt of emulating the men, World Cup winners in Russia last year and also winners as hosts in 1998.

The team had been desperate to make it to Lyon, where the semi-finals and final will be played and where seven of those who featured for France on Friday play their club football for Europe's top side.

Instead, France find themselves out of a fifth straight major tournament in the quarter-finals. To rub salt into the wounds, Friday's defeat had the knock-on effect of denying them a place at next year's Olympics.

Diacre had been set the objective of reaching the final, which always looked a daunting challenge once the draw raised the likelihood of an early meeting with the USA.

Amid the dejection on Friday, Diacre stated her wish to continue, and on Saturday French Football Federation (FFF) President Noel Le Graet confirmed she would stay.

“She will be in charge until the end of her contract, if not longer,” Le Graet told AFP.

That means until Euro 2021 in England at least, and the aim in France is to keep developing the women's game to give them a chance of one day going all the way.

The FFF hope the number of registered female players will reach 200,000 next year, an increase of almost 10 percent from present figures, but far from the two million registered male players.

They have also promised to invest 15 million euros into a post-World Cup “legacy” fund.

The interest in the women's game is there, as shown by television audiences during the World Cup, with 11.8 million watching the USA game on terrestrial TV.

However, translating that to an increased following in the women's domestic league will be a bigger challenge.

France games have drawn sell-out crowds at the World Cup, but in general attendances in domestic competition are modest at best, even if almost 26,000 saw powerhouses Lyon beat closest rivals Paris Saint-Germain earlier this year.

“We cannot go from so much enthusiasm now to league matches on poor pitches with only 120 fans,” said Le Graet. “We all need to make an effort and we will.”

Matches are televised, but like elsewhere income remains light years from rights deals in the men's game — a new sponsorship contract for the 12-club top flight with chemicals company Arkema is worth one million euros per season for three years.

Average salaries are reportedly around 3,500 euros per month, although stars like Amandine Henry and Wendie Renard are believed to earn almost 10 times that at Lyon, who have won the Champions League in the last four years. Again, those sums are dwarfed by the wages often on offer to the men.

“We need to keep putting money in, keep professionalising, because other countries are doing it and maybe that's why they are ahead of us,” warned Lyon and France forward Eugenie Le Sommer.

“We have a good league but unfortunately not every team is professional.

“There are countries who are ahead of us and we must catch up. Even Spain are putting lots of money in and we need to make sure we are not left behind.”

READ ALSO: France coach laments 'failure' as hosts knocked out of World Cup

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