The Agony of Defeat (Not To Mention Group Suicide)

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And so the miracle the entire world had waited for transpired after all. No, France didn’t pull itself out of the pathetic, self-mocking off-field tantrums for which it had become a laughing-stock in recent days. And didn’t knock in enough goals to beat South Africa and sneak into the knock-out round as Mexico lost against Uruguay. But it did—finally!—score a goal in its 2-1 loss to South Africa, thereby defying the predictions of total collapse that many people had predicted. See, things aren’t that bad!

Don’t kid yourself. Under the direction of über-loser coach Raymond Domenech, this French squad’s initial (and enduring) incompetence and disunity on the field was allowed to blossom into the kind of off-pitch theatrics that has the entire country hanging its head in shame—and demanding some sort of pay-back. First came Nicolas Anelka’s obscene locker room insulting of Domenech. That was made even worse by the French Football Federation thinking it could keep the affair covered up, and thus avoid having to discipline anyone for it (these guys don’t mess around with principle). When that was no longer possible once the confrontation was made public by media accounts, the federation expelled Anelka from the team and sent him home—a punishment that produced the surreal site of the remaining French players refusing to practice in protest.

Meantime, rather than focus on exploiting the tiny chance it had to qualify for the knockout round, Team France instead then embarked on a witch-hunt for what players called “the traitor” who’d leaked the word of Anelka’s outburst (an act some called a far worse offense than the Chelsea attacker’s verbal defaming of the team coach). The pressure of a McCarthyist purge attempted within a team sport produced the logical result: the “culpable” parties were never unmasked, but team members did find themselves split up into mutually hostile grouplettes glaring angrily at one another. On the even of the final game, a group of younger player reportedly slipped stealthily into Domenech’s room to tell him they’d opposed the training strike but had been forced to follow along. By kickoff time today, several veteran team players—including captain (captain!!!) Patrice Evra—followed suit in their own manner by telling Domenech they didn’t want to appear in France’s final match under the cloud of controversy they themselves had created. Little wonder, then, that justice was served by South Africa scoring a pair of first half goals as French players continued lurching around like angry sleepwalking. Once France had been reduced to 10 players mid-way through the first period, it was all South Africa need to attempt a scoring spree of its own in the hopes of sneaking into the next round on point difference (something that, sadly, didn’t work out).

So France is out of the World Cup with an on-field performance only slightly better than its 2002 outing (a campaign in which they also didn’t win a match, but didn’t score the single goal of today’s game, either). Still, it’s clear the ridicule this year’s squad heaped upon itself makes the 2002 debacle seem like an innocent mishap. Of course, Domenech’s fate was already sealed before this competition started, since his job had been given to a new coach slated to take over the minute France was out (that would be, uh, now). But this spectacle may wind up doing what’s been impossible up till now: exposing the rotten, complacent, semi-corrupt and conspiratorial old-boys club of self-promotion and -interest that has kept control of the Federation between the same kind of hands for decades now. And that may well be enough to spark the already surging public indignation in France for the top to be blown off the stink hole of France’s footballing power. And as ever in France, where there is fury, massing mobs, and threats of violence, there is the hope of salvation once the storm of destruction has passed.

Indeed, one of the interesting developments as the players and staff of France’s squad continued provoked public dismay with cruddy play and scandalous behavior has been witnessing the lock-step advance of veterans of the victorious 1998 World champion and 2000 European title teams expressing indignant declarations of their own. Stars like Bixente Lizarazu, Robert Pires, Fabien Barthez, and Franck LeBoeuf have led the rising chorus of ex-champions demanding a full house cleaning of the federation. As part of that, they also urge the replacement of the federation’s ruling fat old white oligarchs with younger blood reflecting the full diversity of views, backgrounds, and experiences of the millions of people who play and love football in France. In one of his recent posts, Tony suggested the player revolt last weekend could mark the revolutionary return of a French team capable of advancing on into the Cup. Instead, we’re more likely to see it inspire France’s wider public to storm the citadel of the nation’s favorite sport and throw out its scabrous nobility responsible for this year’s calamity.

If that starts to happen, we’ll see two things add fuel to that salutary fire: the (let’s face it, entertaining) proliferation of leaks about all that happened in South Africa that will prove things were even worse than we thought; and the army of opportunist politicians who’ll start chasing behind the surging mob hoping to score a few points by demanding similar change—yet prove useful in bringing that about. Once that happens, we’re probably likely to see the heroes of 1998 and 2000 stepping up to help direct whatever new edifice goes up. Good thing, too: there isn’t really anyone else around France’s football can count on anymore