From the moment Thierry Henry touched that ball with his hand to the moment I left France in May everyone I met, upon learning my nationality, apologised. They were sorry that he had cheated but I got the sense that they were more disappointed about actually qualifying for the World Cup. They were well aware of how poor the French team was and understandably did not want to go to a competition where they knew they would be shown up. Their hatred of Domenech actually seemed to outweigh their desire to go to South Africa as well. The sooner they lost, the sooner they could get rid of him as coach. As it turns out, their qualification did not stop them replacing Domenech even before the World Cup had started.
So, despite the wishes of a nation, France went to South Africa and so far have managed to create quite a spectacle. Nobody expected France to win the competition, in fact most probably never expected them to make it beyond the first knock out round. Even the fact that they have decided to act like five year old children has been received with a certain amount of resignation. ‘Ah well, what else do you expect from the French?’ seems to be the most common reaction. This has not been the first and will undoubtedly not be the last time that politics overshadow the French team’s performance. What has happened at this World Cup can actually be traced right back to the World Cup in 1998.
The members of the team which won the World Cup in 1998 and then the European Championship in 2000 became heroes in France. As they left the country to earn higher wages in the Premiership and elsewhere they were considered the greatest generation of French footballers to have ever played the game. All of this may have been completely deserved and indeed accurate at the time but their fall from grace at the 2002 World Cup left them looking like old players past their prime. By the end of 2004 eight of the eleven players who had taken to the field for the World Cup final in 1998 had retired. The next generation of French talent was beginning to emerge. But the final in 2006 saw an equal mix of players from the 1998 World Cup and the next generation. It seemed the World Cup winners were unwilling to let go and were still clinging to their pre 2002 glory. The European Championships in 2008 should have been the time when past heroes were forgotten and new ones made as emerging talent in the shape of Nasri and Benzema came to our attention. However, these younger players did not seem to treat the veterans of the 1998 World Cup winning team with the same respect as the generation before them had. The players who emerged after 2002 were willing to worship Zidane and Henry, the newer players who could outrun and outplay them were not so keen. Their lack of respect for their elders and the conflict between the two generations has been blamed for France’s poor performance in 2008. By leaving them at home for the 2010 World Cup, Domenech seemed to be giving a clear message. Only players who were willing to work as a team would be welcome to go to South Africa, even if that meant bringing old players and leaving the best behind.
Which leads us to the main problem; a team decided because of politics and hugely influenced by the ‘revered’ players of World Cups past, will never be the strongest team. France went into this World Cup handicapped by their team selection. Their resulting failures can be blamed on nobody but themselves. This I believe is the reason for the tantrums, the strikes and the resignations. When external factors cannot be blamed frustration is taken out on those closest, in this case fellow teammates and the coach. Domenech has allowed personal feelings influence his selections, he has thought about politics first and football second. This means that when the politics get out of hand, in this case when Anelka was sent home for having a fight with him, the game is immediately affected. If the French team had strong discipline and the coach was respected none of the events of the past week would have happened. But the French team is still run by the aging heroes of the past and Domenech has done NOTHING to earn respect with his decision to leave two of the best French footballers behind. The team itself has nothing to lose by walking out of training sessions because they have long since lost the respect of their country. A new manager is being hailed by many as a new start for France and a chance to rebuild. This will only be possible if the team can reunite and work together. Erasing past memories seems to be the only way to do this, forgetting both the good and the bad.