The post-mortem into France’s underwhelming Euro 2012 campaign began in earnest on Sunday, one day after Les Bleus skulked out of the tournament following a disappointing quarter-final display against Spain.
Losing a quarter-final to the World and European Champions is no reason to be ashamed, but the manner of defeat in a game in which a listless France only had one clear chance on goal means questions will now be asked.
The fact that Saturday’s 2-0 defeat in Donetsk came four days after Les Bleus had been resoundingly beaten by Sweden will heighten the need for some severe soul-searching in France.
Back to back defeats and an opening game draw against England mean France’s win against Ukraine in their second group game was their only victory in four matches at Euro 2012.
That represents a disappointing return for a France team that came into the tournament on the back of an impressive 21-match unbeaten run that included victories over England, Germany and Brazil.
“Leaving without a trace”, was the headline in sport’s daily L’Equipe at the end of a campaign that the paper said “will easily be forgotten”.
After his defensive tactics against Spain failed miserably, coach Laurent Blanc, who is highly respected in France for his exploits as a player, may not escape criticism.
“We’ve just gone out of the competition and the disappointment is obvious for the staff and the players, but we’ll have to analyse this Euro,” Blanc told reporters after Saturday's game.
Old demons return
After failing to win a group match at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, France’s progression to the knock-out stages of Euro 2012 appears on the surface to represent a step forward.
“We reached our objective,” said the head of the French Football Federation Noël Le Graët, before accepting that the overall performance was more “acceptable” than “positive”.
But the feeble showing against an already-eliminated Sweden, and the ensuing dressing room rows, suggested France had not moved on from the acrimonious 2010 World Cup campaign as much as people had hoped.
The widely reported post-match bout of verbals was no doubt over-egged in the media. But coupled with an overall lacklustre performance, it was nonetheless a sign that all was not well in the French camp.
Winger Florent Malouda said the fight had woken up some old "demons".
While Blanc and his staff had tried to play down the row and insisted everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet, the players were at it again in Donetsk on Saturday.
Manchester City’s Samir Nasri, who was said to be at the heart of the post-Sweden row, was once again involved in controversy after unleashing a foul-mouthed tirade at an AFP journalist shortly after the defeat to Spain.
Midfielder Yann M’vila raised eyebrows by sulking off the pitch after being substituted on 79 minutes without shaking the hand of his manager.
Substitute Jeremy Menez looked angry even as he entered the pitch. After being rebuked for his poor positioning, Menez waved a dismissive hand at captain Hugo Lloris, one of the few players to emerge with credit from the tournament.
Minutes later, Menez earned himself a booking after shouting at the referee before skulking around the pitch for the remaining minutes as France struggled for an equaliser.
“The French players did not exactly present the image our Football Federation had been hoping before the tournament,” wrote L’Equipe’s Sebastian Tarrago, recognising that Blanc had difficultly managing the egos in the squad.
For a man who played in a World Cup-winning team alongside respected giants of French football such as Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps, the attitude of the current crop of players must make Blanc want to tear his hair out.
The acrimony and the apparent lack of fight against Spain also means those bridges broken between fans and players in 2010 have not yet been rebuilt.
“There’s still this feeling that this team has talent, but those spoiled kids don’t understand what it takes to play for the national team,” France fan Nico Roux told FRANCE 24. “Losing is acceptable, but only when you show dignity and heart.”
Stars fail to shine
France’s hopes of succeeeding in Ukraine rested largely with their talismanic striker Karim Benzema. The Real Madrid star came into the tournament in fine form after netting 32 goals for his Spanish club this season.
But Benzema failed to score in four matches at the Euros, starved of goal-scoring opportunities and often finding himself too deep to have any real impact on the game.
Bayern Munich’s much-hyped winger Franck Ribery also only shone in patches, and Samir Nasri was unable to build on his man-of-the-match performance against England in the team’s first match.
In all, France's much-vaunted attack only managed three goals in four games.
Fingers will be pointed in all sorts of directions in the coming days, but one thing that remains clear is that France simply lack the stellar talent of days gone by.
Their triumphs at the 1998 World Cup and two years later at Euro 2000 were built around the genius of Zidane, as was their unexpected march to the World Cup final in 2006.
Six years after his infamous World Cup final head butt brought the curtain down on Zidane’s international career, France are still waiting for his successor. Despite early promise from Nasri and Ribery, both are clearly not up to the task.
Blanc would not be drawn on his future after Saturday's defeat. But as he conducts his own inquest into the last two weeks, it would not surprise many if he came to the conclusion that it was not worth all the hassle.
If he does stay in the job, though, he can look forward to a World Cup qualifying campaign in which France’s main rivals will be none other than Spain.
Date created : 2012-06-24