Monday 22 January 2018

The comeuppance of a nation on the football field

John Lichfield in Paris

FRANCE searched its soul last night after its team crashed from the World Cup after just three games, a single goal and a players' mutiny.

Was this the just defeat of an overpaid, arrogant team, which only qualified thanks to the cheating hand of Thierry Henry in a playoff against Ireland? Or was it the comeuppance of a nation? Were there socio-political lessons to be learned from the fact that France -- runners-up in 2006, world champions in 1998 -- finished bottom of Group A?

There were calls by senior politicians last night for an official parliamentary inquiry after the 2-1 defeat at the hands of host nation South Africa.

A right-wing philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut -- who has previously criticised the fact that the squad was dominated by black players -- has blamed the meltdown on "ethnic divisions" in the squad and the fact that many of the players come from racially mixed suburbs.

"In (the behaviour of the France squad) we are watching the spirit of our society being devoured by the spirit of the troubled estates."

His comments amounted to a grim reversal of the predictions that the 1998 World Cup victory would help France to unite behind its "brown, white and black" team.

Other commentators dismissed Mr Finkielkrauts's comments as quasi-racist. The presumed trouble-makers in the France squad were not all black, they pointed out. The younger players who apologised unofficially after the training "strike" on Sunday were not all white.

Besides, many players in the 1998 team -- Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira -- were also from sink estates.

Footballer-turned-writer Vikash Dhorasoo said the real problem was the division between the players and the elite, white officialdom of the French Football Federation. "The poor suburban kids are on the field. The elite civil servants and business bosses run the game," he said.

French football fans, and the public generally, have watched in a mixture of astonishment and grim I-told-you-so satisfaction as the squad disintegrated.

Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home on Saturday for insulting the coach, Raymond Domenech, and refusing to apologise. In protest, the rest of the team refused to train on Sunday. On Monday, sports minister Roselyne Bachelot said the team's behaviour was "a moral disaster".

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