Sitting an watching from the other side of “La Manche”, one of the few crumbs of comfort for England supporters over the first week of the 2010 World Cup finals has been the apparent disintegration of the France team over the same period of time. This reached its natural conclusion yesterday, when Nicolas Anelka was sent home from the tournament over a his refusal to apologise for a verbal attack upon the French coach Raymond Domenech during their 2-0 defeat at the hands of Mexico on Thursday evening. Anelka has, unsurprisingly, subsequently announced his retirement from international football.
France’s first half performance against Mexico had been less that inspiring, and amongst the least effective of all of their players had been Nicolas Anelka. In a match during which France desperately needed an opening goal, Anelka had frequently been playing in a deeper and deeper position. It is, with the benefit of hindsight, hardly a major revelation that he should be criticised – there weren’t that many players in the team that didn’t warrant criticism at half-time during the match, after all. According to France Football, Domenech’s criticism was offered in a “firm and aggravated, but polished tone”, but Anelka’s considered response will probably now go down as one of the definitive quotations of this particular tournament.
Go fuck yourself you son of a whore.
Comparisons have been drawn between Anelka’s behaviour and that of Roy Keane in Saipan before the start of the 2002 World Cup, but the crucial difference is that Keane walked away from the squad, whereas Anelka stayed on and was sent home. Interestingly, the reason given for him being sent home is not the initial outburst, rather his refusal to apologise for it, but many in France are already more interested in the question of how Anelka’s outburst managed to escape into the public realm. Under normal circumstances, what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room, so who was the mole that got the story into the public realm?
Could it have been Thierry Henry, who has been left out of the team but has previously been an agitator to get players that he approves of into the team (as well as, of course, quite possibly himself)? Could it be Domenech himself? After all, he would presumably be keen to deflect any criticism of his team’s performance in its opening two matches of the tournament, and this would be an ideal smokescreen. No matter what, it feels as if this was likely to happen. Rumours of the French players’ unhappiness with the continuing involvement of Domenech with the team have been reasonably long-standing, but that this should happen after just a game of the half of the tournament covers very few in the entire organisation of the French national football team in very much glory.
The response of the French captain, Patrice Evra, was similarly telling. Rather than the normal platitudes, Evra’s comments on the subject of his team’s performance at this year’s tournament have already have read like some sort of living obituary. Quite what the rest of his team are meant to make of comments such as the following are anybody’s guess:
I honestly didn’t see it coming. What hurts is that we didn’t know how to react, or how to equalise, and then they killed us with that second goal. I am deeply upset, I’m disgusted. We owe it to ourselves to beat South Africa. But as for miracles, I don’t believe in them too much.
All of this must be news to the ears of South African supporters. South Africa play France on Tuesday afternoon knowing that a win, and a big one, may yet keep them in the tournament. How will the French team react to the remarkable events of the last few days? Do their players have it in them to raise their game and do what they can to try and keep themselves in the tournament, or are these divisions too great to overcome. Have South Africa got a window of opportunity to try and haul themselves back into this summer’s World Cup? A draw in the other match between Mexico and Uruguay would render such questions irrelevant, and the bookmakers have already made their minds up – France have already drifted out to 200/1 to win the tournament outright.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the current crop of French players are hiding behind the unpopularity of their manager. Anelka himself is some way short of being universally popular in France, but the ultimate responsibility for what happens on the pitch lies with the players themselves. Even prior to last week’s events, Anelka had played pretty badly in their opening match against Uruguay (along with the rest of his team). Over the course of his career, he has consistently split opinions, being, for example, frozen out at Real Madrid (where he received a 45-day suspension for refusing to train), but as he has aged it has start to become increasingly apparent that the strain of petulance that he carries hasn’t diminished. His legacy for the French national team will be just fourteen goals in sixty-four appearances for them.
Before England supporters start laughing too hard, however, they should probably take a moment to consider that a similar complete disintegration of their own team has only been prevented by some slightly more cunning PR. Wayne Rooney, who was presumably advised of the ill-advisedness of his comments on England’s travelling support, has apologised but Fabio Capello has started to retreat behind the use of an interpreter (which, as a recent edition of The New Statesman pointed out, is a familar tactic of his), and the critics at home are starting to draw their swords.
In the modern football world, all of the players are great athletes. Modern training techniques have seen to that and, as such, the psychological aspect of the game becomes more and more important. France, however, do not appear to have thrown away their chance of winning the 2010 World Cup on the basis of the fear of failure that seems to be descending over the England squad at the moment and, stuck between a deeply unpopular manager and a group of players that seem incapable of overcoming their attitude problems, it is probably only the football supporters of France that we should have any sympathy with at the moment.