It just keeps getting uglier. Not 48 hours after their World Cup elimination, members of France’s soccer team returned to a French public whose lust for pay-back hasn’t been seen since locals who collaborated with Nazi troops were being shot or shorn of their hair. Indeed, the public, press, and political denunciation of the behavior and attitude displayed in South Africa has been so belligerent you’d think the entire nation had turned into the Jerry Springer stage set. In fact, that disgust ran so deep it seemed to have put most fans off one of France’s favorite past times: seeking righteous revenge.
Scarcely 100 people (not counting the media) were on hand at le Bourget airport to await the team’s return just before noon—some doubtless hoping for the opportunity to give team members a piece of their mind. They didn’t get the chance. The chartered plane (yeah international press: they flew economy class. Believe everything you hear, and verify nothing…) that flew the squad home was met on the tarmac by vehicles and buses that rushed the disgraced Bleus off to points unknown. At least mostly.
Thierry Henry was driven directly to—get this—the Elysée palace to brief a seriously concerned President Nicolas Sarkozy on the debacle. Let’s repeat that: during the same 24 hour period that Barack Obama had to fire his top general in Afghanistan, Australia’s astonishingly effective and popular Prime Minister was removed from office by his own allies, and thousands of striking French workers were marching across the nation to protest the governments pension reform Thursday, Sarkozy figured the most pressing point of business on his agenda was to get the details about how a group of wildly egotistical, fratricidal millionaires managed to make massive fools of themselves while dropping three straight football matches as the world looked on. Clearly, Sarkozy’s political peers have to be pretty envious about the easy life a French leader enjoys.
To be fair, things had gotten (increasingly) surreal before that pow-wow. Were its on- and off-field melt-down not proof enough that this team has already assured its place atop the garbage heap of history, its continued post-elimination follies left little doubt about its status as dead meat. Team captain Patrice Evra—who refused to play the final match against South Africa—promised reporters Tuesday night that he’d soon dish dirt on what really happened as a means of settling scores. Defender Eric Abidal (who also benched himself) threatened likewise, reasoning his status as a national team player was over anyway. That was the same conclusion Florent Malouda apparently drew when he decided not to return to France with the team, and instead head off alone with the explanation his “dislocation has been attained” with the squad. Though hateful in the spiteful form it assumed, that “you can’t fire me: I quit” philosophy was doubtless based in solid logic. The conclusion of most French observers is that half to three-quarters of the players who participated in the South African campaign (and most if not all veterans of the side) now face de facto banishment from the squad. Some of those now appear to be provoking that finality with even more divisive words or deeds.
The team wasn’t the only place where lashing out was being marketed as remedial reaction to disaster. Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot—after weeks of brow-beating the public and media to support rather than criticize the dysfunctional side—declared Monday that the removal of the president of the French Football Federation (FFF) was “inevitable”. So much for the public chumminess Bachelot had displayed before the curtain fell for France. Even earlier, Sarkozy had called for the entire national structure overseeing soccer—from the elite squad to community youth leagues—to be stripped down and over-hauled, starting with FFF officials themselves. Which promises no good.
Because if the clubby, old boy’s clique that has controlled the FFF for decades—often basing decisions on its own interests and self-perpetuation—was able to remain in power for so long, it was thanks to the collusion of successive governments and Sports Ministries. And it was also due to the kind of big shot networking and in-crowd back-scratching that makes the entire political world turn. By promising to raze and replace that decrepit, totally compromised football factory from the top down, Sarkozy only guarantees the new structure put into place is built from, and with, the same cynical, ulterior-motivated forces that dominated it till this Cup catastrophe shook it to its foundations. The only solution is to hand the game back to those who play it, yet Sarko and Co. are simply looking for new faces wanting to attain money, power, and influence for themselves and the nation with the sport. It’s little wonder that the French phrase for le plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose is…Oh, never mind.