If Moliere was alive today, there can be little doubt that he would have found plenty of inspiration in the chaos of his countrymen’s preparations for the 2010 World Cup, which is now looming large on the horizon. The great French playwright’s rare talent for comedy and satire would have made prolific use of what’s on offer: sex scandals, in-fighting among the players, on-pitch humiliation and a maddening coach whose combination of ineffectiveness and perceived insouciance has caused outrage – even in a country where the general public usually embrace the enigmatic. The bookmakers may beg to differ, but it could all add up to a probably-not-so-shocking conclusion: the 1998 winners and 2006 runners-up could be the big fall guys of this World Cup.
The majority back home certainly think so. A TV poll in France last month revealed that a massive 73% of the population expect Raymond Domenech’s men to fall at the first hurdle and fail to make it out of Group A. Just 7% of those interviewed think that France will make it through to the final, and only 22% think that the right man is in charge of the team. The worrying thing for French fans, the players and Domenech himself is that things have actually got worse since the poll was conducted – much worse.
Firstly, Domenech finalised his 23-man squad, which contained a host of controversial omissions and inclusions: as many left-backs as centre-halves; a mixture of aging, unproven and profligate strikers; and no place for Benzema, Ben Arfa or Nasri, three of France’s most celebrated young players. Just for added spice, two players who did make the cut were wingers Sidney Govou and Franck Ribery – both of whom will play in South Africa wondering if their alleged involvement with underage prostitutes earlier in the year will lead to criminal charges after the finals.
Next came the warm-up games, where things went from bad to worse. Back in March, France had been thoroughly humbled and exposed by Spain in Paris, losing 2-0, so a series of hand-picked, pre-tournament confidence boosters against Costa Rica, Tunisia and China were supposed to lift morale. But a shaky 2-1 win, a poor 1-1 draw and a humiliating 1-0 defeat can only have had the opposite effect.
It certainly appears that way. Factions within the camp are beginning to appear. Arsenal, Chelsea and Marseille fans know William Gallas’ propensity to cause dressing room unrest only too well, and yesterday afternoon it was revealed that he will not be speaking to the media again in South Africa – reportedly to ‘voice’ his displeasure at the coach’s decision to install Manchester United full-back Patrice Evra as captain instead of himself. If you discount the mismatches in qualifying against the Faroe Isles, France have kept just one clean sheet in their last nine games. When you combine this with Gallas’ potentially divisive behaviour and the fact that Domenech will ask him to partner a natural left-back (Eric Abidal) in the centre of France’s defence, it’s easy to see where France’s weakness might be. Group A rivals Mexico and Uruguay have some clever forwards in the shape of Hernandez, Vela, Forlan and Suarez, and they will fancy their chances of capitalising on this.
Domenech, who will become France’s all-time longest-serving manager during the finals, has spent the last few months issuing reassurances for both on and off-field matters, and he seems utterly unaffected by the mounting pressure on him. Perhaps this is because he his contract is not being renewed and he knows that his job is no longer on the line. Perhaps it is because the experience of 2006, when he brushed aside similar levels of criticism to take France to the World Cup final, has given him an impenetrable confidence in his ability to overcome the odds. The French media would have you believe that it’s because he cares only about his main hobbies – playing the drums and astrology – and because he links his own fate and that of the national team to the alignment of the stars. Famously, he was once said to have omitted Robert Pires from a squad because he is a Scorpio…he neither confirmed nor denied this.
It is probably a combination of all three. For a man who claims to be so in tune with the predictive mysteries of the zodiac, one can only wonder whether he saw all of this coming. France’s decline has been rapid under his stewardship and it all points back to the moment Zinedine Zidane was sent off in the final of the last World Cup. Domenech’s hopes of winning the greatest prize of all against the odds faded at that moment and it was here that the wheels began to come off. A disastrous Euro 2008 followed, when France were knocked out in the first round. In the immediate aftermath of this elimination Domenech proposed to his long-term partner live on television. Predictability has never been a trait of his. France then had to suffer the embarrassment of qualifying for South Africa only thanks to Thierry Henry’s handball in the playoff against Ireland.
There is some optimism for the future. The presence in the squad of the likes of Clichy, Lloris and Gourcuff proves that France is still capable of producing young players of the highest quality and offers hope for the weeks ahead. But on the whole it would be a surprise if this particular vintage lives up to the quality of some of its illustrious predecessors. In 1998 France progressed to the final of the World Cup and won it, only to crash out in the group stage four years later. In 2006 they made it all the way to the final again, but if history repeats itself and they are dumped out early this time it will be much less of a shock.
© Mark Robinson 2010