France unleashes fury on drama-plagued football team

A series of conflicts within the French national football team - amounting to a meltdown in the spotlight of one of the world’s most fervently followed sporting events - has left a country where football is often a source of pride reeling in disgust.


Deserters, cowards, miserable tantrum-throwers…

Press both at home and abroad on Monday joined French politicians, fans, and former sports legends in heaping disdainful descriptive language on the country’s football team, as its World Cup campaign threatened to implode.

Criticism fuelled by a lacklustre on-field performance, an unpopular coach, and rumours of petty locker room strife transformed into all-out vitriol when the team walked out of a public training session over the expulsion of striker Nicolas Anelka a day earlier. Anelka had allegedly insulted coach Raymond Domenech during France's defeat against Mexico on Thursday.

The walkout in turn led to a furious row between captain Patrice Evra and a fitness coach, and provoked the resignation of team director and French Football Federation managing director Jean-Louis Valentin.

The team returned to training a day later on Monday, but the series of conflicts - which amounted to a high-profile meltdown in the spotlight of one of the world’s most fervently followed sporting events - has left a country for which football is often a source of national pride reeling in disgust and humiliation.

‘A caricature of France’

French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked his sports minister, Roselyne Bachelot, to prolong her stay in South Africa to try and calm the situation before Tuesday’s final Group A game against South Africa.

France - which made it to the final in the 2006 World Cup, but lost to Italy - is unlikely to qualify for the second round of the tournament this time.

Bachelot told French news media that she and the president were calling for “dignity and responsibility", and warned that “disciplinary action” could follow.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, formerly a member of the national synchronised swimming team, slammed the boycott, telling a French television channel: “I am appalled because I have worn the French national colours…and when you wear the French national colours, you have added responsibilities”.

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Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner added his voice to the chorus of politicians expressing dismay at the team’s behaviour, calling it “an appalling soap opera” and “a caricature of France”.

Also speaking out were some of France’s former soccer greats. Emmanuel Petit (who scored in France’s 1998 World Cup final win over Brazil) denounced the team’s actions as “intolerable”, and Alain Giresse told French television, “It’s sad, it’s shameful, it’s pathetic”.

Heated headlines, frustrated fans

But even more unsparing was the French press. Influential sports daily L’Equipe mocked what an editorial referred to as a “tantrum”, and accused les “Bleus” of cowardice. Newspaper France Soir’s front page story on the situation was topped by the simple, scathing headline “Deserters”.

The problems of France’s football team hardly went unnoticed in the foreign press. High-selling British tabloid The Sun summed up the turmoil with a humourous headline, “French Revolution II”, while US newspaper The Wall Street Journal called the French team “Les Misérables”.

Perhaps most biting of all was a sports blog on the website of famous American magazine Vanity Fair: Under a headline that quipped, “Soccer Scandale: Leave it to the French to Strike at the World Cup”, read “the French squad today reinforced national stereotypes off [the field], namely that they are recalcitrant, indignant whiners”.

Slightly more wistful tones were struck by fans interviewed in Paris by FRANCE 24. “They should know better”, a disappointed supporter said. “They should be playing for their country, not for themselves”.

“It shows a lack of respect for young people,” another noted.

Some French football followers, fed up with their team’s unpleasant antics and eager to get back to focusing on the game they love, already seemed to be moving on. As one said simply: “We’re waiting for a new start”.

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