Everything you need to know about the shebang in South Africa
It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon outside the sleepy town of Knysna and amidst the rolling hills that distinguish the countryside of the Western Cape, a solitary bus is parked, its curtains drawn, its engine turned off.
The slogan written across its windows, “All together for a new dream in blue”, mocking those inside who had just staged arguably the most notorious mutiny in World Cup history.
Minutes earlier, the French team had shocked 250 assembled journalists by announcing their intention not to train and to instead go on strike in protest at the treatment of Nicolas Anelka.
The disgraced Chelsea forward had been sent home the night before after he apparently refused to apologise for telling Raymond Domenech to “Go f**k yourself, you son of a whore” during the interval of France’s now infamous game against Mexico on Thursday night.
Anelka’s foul-mouthed tirade had somehow found its way out of the dressing room and onto the desk of French newspaper L’Équipe, who used it as their front-page splash on Saturday morning, throwing another bone of contention to an already divided pack of players.
Domenech’s mother was even quoted as saying: “I’d like to meet Monsieur Anelka and give him a piece of my mind.” However, despite a survey showing that 81.3% of people agreed with the French Football Federation’s decision to send Anelka home, the team predictably had another Bête Noir.
“France’s problem is not Anelka, but the traitor among us,” said a menacing-looking Patrice Evra. “We must eliminate the traitor from the group because he wants to hurt the team.” Initially, it looked as if Evra had found his traitor on Sunday when Raymond Domenech had to separate him from France’s fitness coach Robert Duverne, who stormed off into the distance, only stopping to throw his whistle and accreditation badge into the bushes with Gallic aplomb.
The pair would later deny the claims with Duverne going so far as to say: “I am of Italian origin, I speak with my hands, and if I got carried away, it’s because I wanted to convince them to train, because I am obsessed with the idea of beating South Africa 4-0.”
Meanwhile, the squad retired to the bus for crisis talks. A sheepish-looking Domenech emerged soon enough with a statement from the players scribbled on a piece of paper, which they forced him to read, leading sections of the French press to liken him to a pitiful hostage.
In their statement, the players laid out three points: 1) they affirmed their opposition to the decision taken to exclude Nicolas Anelka 2) they expressed their regret that the incident had been divulged to the media and 3) they added that at no point had the French Football Federation tried to protect the squad.
France’s team director Jean-Louis Valentin took the dignified and widely praised step of resigning in the hope that it would set an example for others to follow. “I’m sickened and disgusted,” he said before heading back to the hotel to pack his bags.
Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, even felt compelled to ask his Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot to meet Evra, Domenech and the President of the French Football Federation, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, to call for “dignity and responsibility”.
The charismatic former Marseille boss Rolland Courbis greeted the turn to diplomacy with derision. “Without realising it the herd that is the French team has been tainted by two or three black sheep and these sheep influence the group,” he laughed. “Maybe Bachelot will find vaccines to fight against these black sheep.”
So who are the black sheep? Just weeks after being handed the captaincy, Evra hasn’t be able to put a foot right. Monday’s L’Équipe accused him of “confusing the captaincy of the French team with that of a team of boy scouts”, sometimes acting like a “gang leader” and “showing neither the dimension, the charisma, the standard or the stature to wear the armband.”
Instead of acting with a cool head after the Anelka debacle and respecting the Federation’s decision like his predecessors had done, the Manchester United full-back went on a vendetta, looking for a mole, which only served to increase the paranoia within the camp.
His somewhat surprising appointment also caused notable disruption within a squad that was selected under the misguided assumption that egos would be put to one side. Feeling snubbed, William Gallas inexplicably called a press silence and even gave Téléfoot journalist David Astorga the bird after Friday’s match against Mexico.
Franck Ribéry also had some explaining to do amid reports that he had a fight with Yoann Gourcuff on the plane and even got him off the team. The Bayern Munich winger arrived for an impromptu chat with Téléfoot just hours after the players’ strike and his eyes appeared to fill with tears as he defended himself: “When I see certain journalists on TV talking about me as if I am a school bully, I’m hurt. I’m not like that as a person,” he said. Even so, Ribéry’s very public campaign to play in his preferred position on the left when the balance of team would have been better served with him on the right, suggests otherwise.
The usually sphinx-like Zinedine Zidane had a blatant pop at both of them yesterday. “I didn’t agree with their decision not to participate in training,” he said. “When I was a player I never gave my opinion on the composition of the team. Sure, I was the captain, but I had a coach above me and I respected that. I followed the rules and that’s how it should be. We will remember two things about this World Cup: the winner’s name and the fact that the French team refused to train for their match against South Africa.”
Zidane should know of course, having provided arguably the most memorable moment from the last World Cup. Ultimately, though, the buck must stop with Domenech, whose methods have come under so much fire that by now they’re shot to pieces.
Shortly after mocking him as the French team’s new press attaché, L’Équipe wrote: “Raymond Domenech is at the bottom of the hole that he created. On a sporting and a media-related level, he is the origin of the greatest fiasco in the history of the French team.”
France were back in training yesterday wearing the scars of Sunday’s strike on their kit, which had disastrously lost four of its major sponsors. The suits at Crédit Agricole and Carrefour obviously agree with Domenech’s latest assessment of the strike as “unspeakably stupid.”
Nevertheless, Les Bleus can still qualify for the second round if they beat South Africa by a big scoreline tonight although they are dependant on Uruguay and Mexico not recording a draw. However, some are already looking to after the World Cup. “Laurent Blanc’s got a huge job to do,” said Paris-Saint Germain midfielder Claude Makélélé.
Luckily Le Président appears up for the challenge. When asked to comment on reports that he turned down Inter Milan yesterday, Blanc said: “I’d rather rebuild a side that can’t get any worse than manage one that can’t get any better.”
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