Peyton Place-sur-Seine

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French coach Raymond Domenech may have decided to put the team’s best interests ahead of his many, many personal grudges for once, but that still doesn’t mean sanity has returned to France’s footballing soap opera. Though virtually all press reports in France Thursday say Domenech is set to make what has long been an obvious right move—ie. starting the excellent Chelsea attacker Florent Malouda in tonight’s match against Mexico–his petty spats and dysfunctional ego are expected to lead the coach to stick with France’s two offensive duds: attackers Nicolas Anelka and Sindey Govou. One step forward, two back.

As Tony’s post last week correctly noted, Domenech’s proven competence with younger French squads has been totally undermined since taking over the A team by his control-freakiness. The man is dominated by a self-destructive obsession to prove he’s always right (which, to his mind, he has be merely because he’s the boss)– even if that means (as he has put it) “dying with my principles”. As Tony accurately recalled, that “I’ll prove I’m right or kill us all trying” madness is what provoked a player revolt in 2006 as France looked into the abyss of a second-straight World Cup elimination in the group round. That mutiny (see Tony’s post for details) just happened to coincide with France’s dramatic turn-around from virtually excluded to its eventual spot in the final against Italy (a final  they lost in a shootout). So what does a four year-old rebellion of players who’ve mostly retired from the game have to do with tonight’s match against Mexico? Follow me to the next paragraph and I’ll show you.

The humiliation of basically being tied up and thrown in the trunk during the German Cup is in large part responsible for why Domenech is incapable of making what most observers see as logical choices in this campaign. In order to forestall any repeated uprisings, Domenech has mostly relied on players whose history with Team France—and/or fidelity to its coach—is limited to his presence atop les Bleus. This would explain why Anelka—who after earlier stints with French sides was left for dead until Domenech recalled him—continues to play at the point of the French attack despite his continual failure to constitute even much of a scoring threat. Ditto the starting status of Govou, a pretty average player even within the context of France’s weak professional league, and someone who has admitted his performances for the national side have been, well, sucky.

In addition to Domenech sticking with the transparent Anelka and Govou as “his boys”, he has even deeper logic (ie. if you’re adapting the reason of a serious neurotic) in wanting to deny their obvious replacements more influence in the game and locker room: he’s scared of them. Given the anemic state of France’s offense of late, the logical remedial move is to start the benched Thierry Henry at point, give the admittedly fickle Djibril Cissé (or newcomer Pierre-André Gignac) a chance to shake things up on the right, position Malouda on the left, and let  Franck Ribéry direct the offense as play-maker. But Domenech is wont to start Henry, given the World and European champion’s sway over his team mates—and his reported role in questioning many of Domenech’s nutty decisions (openly, albeit behind closed locker room doors) during the catastrophic Euro 2008 outing. Meanwhile, Domenech will already be taking a chance (to his way of thinking) just playing Malouda, given the clash the two had ahead the Cup  over Domenech’s decision to position the offensive specialist in a defensive midfield position (an idea Malouda objected to, resulting in his benching).

Indeed, Domenech’s grudges are so strong that—surprise!—it took another form of inner-squad intrigue to force Malouda into the mix at all. If he indeed takes the field as a starter tonight, Malouda will replace Yoann Gourcuff—last year France’s Best Player with Bordeaux who has admittedly never risen to the same level under French colors. But his playing isn’t what took him out of the line-up; it was complaints by both Ribéry and Anelka that they “can’t play with” Gourcuff, and warnings they’re averse to passing to a guy in matches they don’t have confidence in. Worse still, both reportedly grumbled that they just don’t like Gourcuff as a person, and didn’t want to have to deal with him (an ironic character attack by the notorious misanthropic Anelka, and a Ribéry who–once the Cup is over–will face a police investigation on charges he purchased the services of an under-aged prostitute).

The point here is, none of what’s going on with the changes has much to do with football, but is firmly rooted in the kind of petty, highly-personalized ego stroking Domenech relies on—and himself expects from the entire world. Given Gourcuff’s performance in the last few matches, it’s hard to fault Domenech for taking him out to try something else—especially if that something is a terrific player like Malouda. But where you can knock him is for stopping there, and not putting Henry in as a clearly better choice than Anelka—and replacing Govou with anything (including a leaky sack of pee) as offering  greater offensive potential. That’s probably asking too much maturing of Domenech before the starting whistle blows tonight. But if he waits longer than that to start acting like a lucid, stable adult, it’ll probably be too late for France.