Evra 'disgusted' as French empire falls
AS PATRICE Evra stood in the bowels of Polokwane's Peter Mokaba Stadium on Thursday night, head bowed in the face of the fury of the French media, it was no surprise to hear him confess his shame and disgust at France's defeat to Mexico.
His suggestion that it was a shock, though, jarred. After all, theirs is no abrupt demise. The cockerel has barely crowed for a decade.
France's surprise appearance in the 2006 World Cup final was a rare moment in the sun amid otherwise perpetual twilight. They were eliminated at the group stage of the World Cup in '02, of the European Championship in '08 and, to be confirmed, of this World Cup.
Evra, certainly, is not holding out hope. "We have to beat South Africa, of course, but I do not believe in miracles," he said. "I am still in shock. There is a lot to say but I am not prepared to say it yet. I am disgusted. I thought we could react, but we could not. It hurts a lot. We are not a great team."
Far from it. France have gone beyond the quarter-finals of a tournament just once since David Trezeguet's golden goal won Euro 2000. The list of teams who have beaten them -- including Senegal and Denmark -- is hardly a who's who of world football. Evra's mea culpa ended with the assertion that France had behaved "like a small football nation". He is right. That is what they have become.
It is also, perhaps, what they only occasionally not been. France's football history is one of mediocrity peppered with occasional outbreaks of inspiration. Just Fontaine fired them to third in the 1958 World Cup, yet they did not reach a European Championship finals between 1964 and 1980.
The generations of Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane illuminated the world, yet after another bronze medal, this time in Mexico in '86, the French sides of Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona were not even present in the 1990 and '94 editions of the world's biggest sporting event.
That last constellation of stars, the one that won the World Cup on home soil, brought a pre-eminence France had never experienced. Precedent suggested it would be followed by a fallow period. Maybe they are simply reverting to type. Maybe it is futile to rage against destiny.
That provides no solace, of course. That the memory of success is so fresh simply makes it hurt all the more. Zinedine Zidane was there in Polokwane as a television pundit, bemoaning the state of Raymond Domenech's side.
"They did not even have a single shot on goal," he said.
Thierry Henry was closer still, unemployed on the bench, his controversial, reviled manager steadfastly refusing to introduce the country's record goalscorer even as the game, and then hope, and then pride, slipped from his grasp.
William Gallas and Nicolas Anelka were on the pitch, the former looking every bit of his 32 years, the latter withdrawn at half-time after a deeply ineffective performance. This was the moment when the remnants of the golden generation, tarnished and scuffed, finally turned back into base metal.
In other nations, such an inglorious end would provide the impetus for a revolution, for change to be brought, new heroes to be found. The manager, at long last, will depart, to be replaced by the young, ambitious, respected Laurent Blanc, but little else will change. France have dwelled on the past for so long for a reason.
Domenech's solitary highlight was built on his ability to persuade the likes of Zidane and Lilian Thuram to come out of international retirement to help a nation in need. He appealed to their patriotic pride, their sense of duty.
France, after all, were struggling to qualify for the tournament. It was a minor miracle, and one that explains Domenech's longevity, that they reached the final. Their presence provided the most temporary of solutions. Much the same could be said of Henry and Gallas here, both of whom are far past their peak, their presence the perfect example of France's fragility.
Gallas, Henry and Anelka will all be absent when, if, France travel to Euro 2012. Clairefontaine, the cradle of the team which represented the zenith of France's footballing prowess, is still firing, still producing young talent, but the unique seam which produced Henry, Trezeguet and the rest seems to have been exhausted long ago.
While the likes of Jeremy Toulalan, Mathieu Valbuena and Andre-Pierre Gignac are fine players, they are hardly the sort to win tournaments. They have helped French domestic football to a position of comparative strength, but to ask them to conquer the world is too much.
Even the standard-bearer of the new generation, Yoann Gourcuff is little more than a pale imitation of what went before, labouring under the weight of history.
Such is the reality France faces. Expectations must be revised, demands withdrawn.
France, for now, stand among the ranks of the also-rans, their only hope that the future, the far-off future, can provide more hope than the present. (© Daily Telegraph, London)