France’s World Cup: “Can We Go Home Now?”

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Don’t tell the French this World Cup isn’t all over for them before it even starts. Suggesting otherwise is largely brushed off on Planet France–the largest consuming nation of tranquilizers and anti-depressants anywhere. Right now, optimism is mostly seen as merely forestalling the soccer agony that fate has in store for l’equipe de France. “Let’s get this global party of masochism started” (the prevailing mood here goes), “so we can the humiliation of being thrown out of it over quickly like the footballing gate-crashers we are”.

Indeed, just six months after France decided a seriously tainted berth was better than not getting to South Africa at all, many French fans are now sounding like they wish their side were anywhere but in the vicinity of  Cup play. It’d be a lot harder, that thinking goes, to suffer a public pantsing its about to get at the hands of footballing super-powers like Uruguay and the hosting Bafana Bafana if les Bleus were vacationing someplace safe like Murmansk of Fresno. De Gaulle had something when he complained about this nation being one hell of a tough room to please.

That dominating wet blanket attitude isn’t one you’d expect from the nation that won the event in 1998, barely lost the final of the last Mondial in 2006, and obtained a European crown between times. But it is the outlook the current team–and its spectacularly disliked coach, Raymond Domenech–has inspired during in the four, mostly dysfunctional years since les Bleus’ miracle number-two finish in Germany. Just how do the French think their team will do in South Africa? A poll of 14 countries with teams participating in the World Cup by the BVA-WIN agency found 50% of French respondents predicting their side wouldn’t get past the group round of play (a quartet filled out by favorite Mexico). That compared to only 30% of Americans who predicted the same doom for Team USA–not a nation footballing snobs in France were happy to see more bullish about its footballing chances just days before play begins. Less Americans think their national soccer team will get a quick bum’s rush from the World Cup than fans from 2006 runner-up France. That’s taking the notion of “surrender monkey” to a new level (and fevered pitch).

Yet it gets worse from there. While the same poll found that even if more French fans said they believed their team would come home with the title than their American peers–19% of such optimists français versus 15% chez les Americains–that gung-ho group French supporters was immediately derided by several popular soccer sites as “lobotomized” for harboring such delusional hopes. And those weren’t the only observers ready to look askance at France fans willing to bet much on the prospects of les Bleus. Former French team captain and member of France’s World and European champion sides, Marcel Desailly, lamented in South Africa’s Sunday Times that based on the level of play the team has shown in past months ” I’m almost sure they can’t win the World Cup”. At least Desailly was kind enough to prevent a mass run on Zoloft back home by throwing in the “almost” qualifier.

The underlying logic of Desailly’s reasoning (ie. a team that’s looked lost and feckless for yonks isn’t likely to suddenly shine on command) may be one reason for the moderate interest in a World Cup that just six months ago all of France was ready to kill–or cheat–to qualify for. According to the BVA-WIN poll, just 56% of the French say they’re interested in World Cup play, compared to 90% from group rival Mexico. The interest level in France is also out-paced by the supposedly soccer-snubbing US–which registered 58%–and also beaten by 73% in Switzerland. Ironically, the Swiss and South Koreans–the latter expressing the poll’s greatest level of fan enthusiasm with 98%–were at the top of those predicting an exit of their teams following group play with 80% and 87% respectively. Meaning, apparently, that the French win neither the title for worst pessimists, or biggest masochists. Talk about not being able to win for losing.

Not too surprisingly, Brazil won the global poll the the favorite to win the World Cup with a 28% score. Spain finished second with 13%, following by Argentina (7%), Germany and Italy (6%) each, and England’s 4%. Somehow, Ghana failed to win any votes among foreign fans as likely to leave South Africa as world champs, but that didn’t stop 65% of Black Stars supporters from predicting their side would indeed win the Cup (ranking themselves second in global optimism behind 67% in Brazil). That confidence may also explain how Ghana’s 93% level of interest in the looming World Cup ranked second–right behind South Koreans who see virtually no chance of their team coming out on top.