The French are revolting
FRANCE'S troubled World Cup campaign descended into all-out anarchy yesterday with the players refusing to train, a top official resigning, the position of manager Raymond Domenech completely undermined, and a war of words developing between the squad and their own association.
The fall-out from Domenech's half- time row with Nicolas Anelka in Thursday's loss to Mexico has finally brought down the house of cards which has barely remained intact through his turbulent reign as manager.
Rather than galvanising the troops, their fortuitous qualification for these finals at Ireland's expense has merely succeeded in delaying the inevitable and multiplying the impact of the meltdown.
Even by French standards of in-fighting, events at their base camp in Knysna over the weekend were spectacularly chaotic and dramatic.
On Saturday, skipper Patrice Evra said that a 'traitor' in the camp was responsible for leaking details of the spat between Anelka and Domenech which culminated in the French Federation (FFF) deciding to send the 31-year-old home.
The Chelsea star, who is understood to have told Domenech to 'fxxx off, you son of a whore', flew back from Cape Town to London last night.
However, the move enraged his friends in the squad and they made the decision to boycott training yesterday, although they turned up to sign autographs in front of the waiting press, who captured a furious row between Evra and fitness coach Robert Duverne, with Domenech restraining the latter who stormed off and flung away his stopwatch in full view of everybody.
Evra later released a statement asserting that he did not believe Duverne was the traitor.
While the players then made their way back to the bus, Domenech was placed in the remarkable situation whereby he had to address the press pack and read a statement on his dressing-room's behalf, which, effectively, backed Anelka and criticised his employers who had taken the swift course of action in support of the embattled manager -- who had earlier revealed that Anelka neglected to issue the apology.
"If we regret the incident which occurred at half-time of the match between France and Mexico, we regret even more the leak of an event which should have remained within the group and which is quite common in a high level team," said the statement.
"For its part, the French Football Federation has at no time tried to protect the squad. It has made a decision (to send Anelka home) without consulting all the players on the basis of the facts reported by the press
"Accordingly, and to mark the opposition to those at the highest level of French football, all the players decided not to train today."
The players did stress their intent to put in a positive display against South Africa tomorrow, although elimination seems certain. Les Bleus need to beat the hosts by a comfortable margin, and then hope for a clear winner in the Rustenberg meeting of Mexico and Uruguay.
In response to the boycott, team director Jean-Louis Valentin, who is also the FFF's managing director, announced his resignation from both positions when he was surrounded by a blaze of cameras and tearfully denied he was the source of the leak.
"I am disgusted, I am quitting my post," said Valentin. "I am ashamed and I am leaving immediately for Paris.
"What has happened is a scandal for the federation, for the French team and for the whole country. They do not want to train, it is unacceptable."
In response, the federation released a statement strongly criticising the actions of the players and stating that Evra was present when the decision to send home Anelka was taken.
"The French federation and president Jean-Pierre Escalettes took note with dismay the refuls of the players to participate in training," they said.
"Contrary to the affirmations of the players, this sanction (sending home Anelka) was taken at the end of long discussions with the person concerned, in the presence of the captain."
The developments overshadowed an interesting day in South Africa, with Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld forced to wade into the debate, admitting that he would have resigned if he were Domenech.
Meanwhile, back in France, Sochaux manager Francois Gillot spared a thought for Ireland as he discussed the controversy.
"Today I am thinking of the Irish -- they should have been there in our place," he said. "France is the laughing stock of the world."
Of course, Ireland can't take too much of a moral higher ground with respect to internal disputes on the greatest stage.
The FFF's decision to launch a full enquiry into what went wrong brings back memories of the Genesis Report initiated by the FAI to investigate the breakdown in Saipan in 2002.
However, with Domenech on the way out, a significant hurdle on the way to progress will be removed.
Before last November's play-off, Richard Dunne articulated the widely held feeling in the Irish camp that the identity of the French boss was a cause for the optimism. Similarly, they felt the brittle spirit in his dressing-room could be exposed when pressure was applied, and there was evidence of that in the second leg before Thierry Henry's hand made a historic contribution.
Domenech subsequently praised the spirit in the camp, but his statements were contradicted by repeated reports of in-house squabbles, with Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou's dalliances with a prostitute heaped further embarrassment.
Henry's demotion, Domenech's preference for Yoann Gourcuff, and bemusement at his general team selections were the talking points coming into the tournament. The Mexican defeat brought everything to a head and, in addition to Anelka's fit of pique, the coach also had to deny speculation that Ribery and Gourcuff came to blows on the flight back to their base.
Put simply, it's a mess, and the intervention of the political world was the final insult. Henri Guaino, an advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy, admitted the situation was beyond repair. "It's no longer football, it's no longer sport, it's no longer a team," he said.