French soccer chiefs were so certain their failing team would crash out of the World Cup that they had a bus ready to take them straight to the airport for a coach-class flight back home. Sure enough, the most arrogant, disjointed, fractured and embarrassing squad in the tournament was happy to oblige.
For the third match in a row, France, a 2006 World Cup finalist in Germany, showed a complete lack of class on and off the field in South Africa. A 2-1 defeat to the host nation sent the French home with just a single point, and coach Raymond Domenech provided a new low point by gracelessly refusing to shake the hand of South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.
After a player mutiny in which the team refused to show up for one of Domenech’s official training sessions, France was on its way back to Paris, stripped of its superstar privileges.
Instead of flying in first-class luxury on an Airbus A380, like how it arrived to South Africa two weeks ago, the squad was ushered out of the country on a no-frills charter flight booked by its fuming national federation.
And it was nothing less than the team deserved.
There can be no excusing the French performance and, more significantly, their attitude at this World Cup. A squad featuring players from super clubs like Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal played like a bunch of amateurs and acted like a collection of spoiled children.
France cheated its way into the tournament back in November when Thierry Henry’s goal-creating handball saved it in a European playoff against the Republic of Ireland. And it cheated its way out of it.
Not by flouting the rules, but by abusing the spirit of the game and the prestige of this worldwide festival of sport.
Domenech had no support from his players even before the event, and it was no surprise. With the federation installing former captain Laurent Blanc as coach – and his contract to start after the World Cup – Domenech was already a dead man walking.
When controversy struck with forward Nicolas Anelka blasting Domenech with an expletive-laden insult during a defeat to Mexico, the revolt was under way. The players stayed in their rooms, watching television instead of getting onto the training field.
Even France president Nicolas Sarkozy waded into the controversy, blasting the squad’s attitude in a public tirade and sending his sports minister to South Africa to confront the players. But there is only one person who might have a chance of sorting out this mess, and he is not a politician.
That person is Laurent Blanc.
For a proud soccer nation like France to be dumped out in such fashion from one of the tournament’s easiest groups is an unspeakable humiliation. The first thing Blanc must do is strip the team of its aging troublemakers who formed a clique that was hugely destructive.
Anelka should have played his last game for his country. The same goes for defenders William Gallas and Patrice Evra, who is believed to be at the center of the team’s mutinous thoughts.
South Africa’s victory was not enough to put it through to the round of 16, making it the first World Cup host in history to fail to reach the second round. Yet the shame and disgrace on Tuesday night was not Bafana Bafana’s.
It belonged instead to a team that didn’t deserve to be in the tournament in the first place and treated soccer’s greatest show like an inconvenience rather than a privilege.