SEVERING THE FRENCH CONNECTION

I was getting off the Paris Metro system on Saturday when I suddenly became very confused as to what city I was actually in. It wasn't just the lack of sweating, frustrated bodies throwing me physically out of the carriage that made me realise that I was no longer travelling on the London Underground. Nor was I deceived by Paris's relative lack of ice-cool ambience as typified by Barcelona's air-conditioned 'get-relief-from-the-heat-as-you-travel-round-the-city' Metro system. No, it was more to do with that intangible feeling of getting cultural references that are stored in my head mixed up with my actual physical location at a certain moment in time.

For as I was descending from the platform down to street level, I believed for a moment that this was the location where "Popeye" Doyle, having chased the train containing the hired assassin sent by 'Frog 1' to kill him, finally gets to shoot the bad guy as he walks down the steps. Except that the movie hadn't been filmed in Paris. Nor Marseilles (which was my next reaction.) But New York. On whose subway system I had never travelled.

Having finally established, on second and third glance around me, that yes indeed, the Eurostar service had deposited me in the Gard du Nord in Paris rather than somewhere in Brooklyn or the Bronx, I was free the enjoy the rest of the weekend as a light-hearted cultural tourist abroad, aiming to pick up the odd Arsenal reference wherever I could find them.

Which wasn't as easy as it might seem. Last time I was in the French capital, the national side had just become European Champions after defeating the Italians in Holland. Coupled with their World Cup triumph of two years previously, the French squad were big, big news and it wasn't difficult to find interviews with their leading lights such as "Titi" Henry in most magazines and newspapers. Now, with the rugby World Cup dominating the news both inside and outside the sports supplements, football was taking very much a back seat. Still, Les Blues were due to be playing a friendly with the Germans that night and the match was going to shown live on the TV. Which would have been fine and dandy if I hadn't been travelling to France with my wife. Much as she indulges my passion for all things Arse, there was no way she would allow me to spend precious Parisian eating-and-drinking time on something so trivial as an international friendly match.

So, it was a question of watching the briefest of highlights on the news after returning from a late supper. My, but what highlights! Our Thierry seemed to be on scintillating form, scoring the first with his head from a deep cross coming in from the left, then laying the second on a plate to his pal Trezeguet after delighting skimming a German defender just inside the home team's half. The French commentators seemed to be particularly entranced by the player they called "Le Gooneur". After the strange rumours of TH yelling at certain East Stand Lower supporters during the tense Champions League tie against Dynamo Kiev recently, it was certainly good to hear such unalloyed joy aimed at one of our French stars. In deep contrast, the rumoured departure of Sylvain Wiltord to pastures new has been greeted with the merest of gallic shrugs from the Highbury faithful. Could it be that the 'entente cordiale' that has existed in London N5 towards all things French since the arrival of Wenger is slowly but surely coming to an end?

Certainly, the speculation that the manager would prefer to play Pascal Cygan in central defense and move Kolo Toure to fill the position vacated by the suspended Lauren rather than bring Stefan Molz back from his loan spell at Fulham has been greeted by near universal horror on the fan's message boards. Granted, this has little to do with Pascal's nationality, rather his perceived lack of pace. I still suspect, however, that the displeasure directed towards Cygan's possible recall, coupled with the indifference shown towards Wiltord's contractual demands, are the first concrete signs that the love affair between Gooners and our friends from across the Channel is visibly cooling.

If the passion that Henry still shows towards playing for Arsenal is not entirely in evidence when one watches Sylvain Wiltord this season, Robert Pires occasionally or, dare on say it, Patrick Vieira since the home match against United last April, the contrast could not become clearer when examining the workrate and commitment shown by the young man whose efforts have come to epitomise the 2003/2004 Arsenal campaign so far - Kolo Toure.

Ten minutes to go in a match that could have witnessed the end of yet another embarrassing Champions League campaign and there was our central defender, picking the ball up in midfield and driving the whole team forward. Seconds later, and he's in the Kiev box looking to add his weight and desire to our search for a winner. Not forgetting his strike against Kiev which hit the bar in the last minute of the away fixture and one begins to see why the fans have so taken to the young man.

If a single attribute can be picked out from Toure's overall displays during this season, then it's his desire. A desire to succeed that seems to be sadly lacking from too many of his more successful (in terms of medals and money) playing colleagues. Only having 'the Big Pot' as their one remaining aim in the game seems to have diluted several of the current squad from playing to their maximum potential.

If French desire cannot be rekindled quickly, then Arsene should learn from his greatest success this season and try to unearth more pearls from the Ivory Coast instead of lavishing Arsenal's last reserves of cash on players who are fêted in their homeland but leave a sour taste in the collective palate of north London.

 


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