FRENCH CULTURE has always carried an enormous weight of respect. The very foundations of the country seem to be built on romance, cuisine, fashion and stunning architecture, and the sprawling City of Lights continues to be a shining pillar on an increasingly unsure continent. The French and football form a pair that simply belongs together – a match most definitely made in heaven. Former legends such as Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry have pirouetted their way into football history books, grabbing the sport by the scruff of its neck and truly giving it the title of the beautiful game.
However, in one fateful South African summer seven years ago, that elegance noticeably lost its beauty, and relationships between the French and football rapidly turned sour as the country’s football team seemed to spectacularly embarrass itself at every twist and turn. Le Foot had been thrown into disrepute.
France travelled to the 2010 World Cup with heightened expectations after their failures at the Euros just two years before, but Les Bleus suffered a nightmare tournament as they fell at the first hurdle. Their manager, Raymond Domenech, had somehow clung onto his job by the skin of his teeth and led the team to South Africa under the scrutiny of a doubtful nation.
Before the squad had even qualified for football’s greatest competition, French national football had been caught up in controversy. Their route to the World Cup hadn’t been an easy one, as they laboured through their qualification group into second place. A disappointing defeat to Austria on matchday one set the tone, and further points were dropped against Romania and Serbia. This meant that Les Bleus had to face a playoff against the Republic of Ireland if they were to reach the World Cup finals.
That tie will go down in history as one of the most controversial in the history of the game, and created a collective anger so large that calls for extra officials and video technology began to be debated by the sport’s main organising bodies. The people of the Republic of Ireland are still bitter about the events of the second showdown to this day, and understandably so.
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The first leg at Croke Park had finished in a 1-0 win for the French, leaving the Irish needing a breakthrough at the Stade de France if they were to reach South Africa. The dream was very much alive for the men in green, as Kevin Kilbane fed a ball to Damien Duff, who chased the pass to the byline. There he looked up and saw the talismanic figure of Robbie Keane in the box. He pulled the ball back perfectly, allowing the striker to slot home.
However, as the game entered extra time poised on a knife edge, ticking agonisingly towards its conclusion, Florent Malouda found himself poised over a set piece. He lofted it forwards to Thierry Henry, who had made a run to Shay Given’s near post. As the delivery bounced upwards, Henry clearly handled the ball twice to prevent it from going out of play, before playing it across the face of goal for William Gallas to nod home, sending his country to South Africa. The now infamous scenes saw the French consumed in a mire of protests and anger, as the Irish demanded that a replay take place. However, no such thing happened, and France found themselves on the plane to the World Cup.
Domenech’s selections for his 23-man party caused confusion back in his home country. Notable figures such as Patrick Vieira, Samir Nasri and Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema missed out on the journey, whereas Yann M’Vila and Mathieu Valbuena both made the cut, despite neither having earned recognition on the international stage.
The palpable tensions and uncertainly in the camp were sure to burst into anger at some point; all it needed was the touchpaper to be lit first. Just 24 hours before their opening game of the tournament, the first of many bust-ups unfolded spectacularly. Malouda had to held back by his captain, Patrice Evra, after he had squared up to Domenech following a training ground disagreement. The manager believed Malouda had been acting in an aggressive manner, and benched him for their first game.
With a growing feeling of insecurity creeping into the French camp, Les Bleus kicked off the tournament with the dullest of stalemates, drawing 0-0 with Uruguay. The game never exploded into life, and France found themselves struggling to make any form of impact against a compact opponent. Jérémy Toulalan was booked for a heavy tackle, and a heated exchange followed that saw Domenech come onto the pitch to calm the situation. This was to be the second moment of the tournament where the puzzling French manager found himself in an uncomfortable situation. It certainly wouldn’t be the last.
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Following the draw, French legend and former captain Zinedine Zidane said he believed Domenech had lost control of the team, and that he was “not a coach”. The controversial icon had captained his country at the 2006 World Cup after coming out of retirement, and the weight of his comments may have affected his former teammates more than he had intended.
The second match in South Africa saw France succumb to Mexico 2-0, and tensions in the camp started to flare up again on an even larger scale. The Mexicans struggled to find a way past Hugo Lloris but broke through just after the hour mark as Javier Hernández slotted into the net to give his country the lead. After this, El Tri continued to mount the pressure and came away relatively comfortable 2-0 victors. The result left the French rooted to the bottom of their table with only one point gained, and no real indication that performances were going to improve.
At half-time, Domenech had replaced the ineffectual Nicolas Anelka with André-Pierre Gignac, and it wasn’t until the full-time whistle had sounded that the real reason for the change rose to the surface. Deep in the bowels of the Peter Mokaba stadium, the Chelsea striker had had a blazing row with his manager at half-time, which he refused to apologise for when prompted to by Fédération Française de Football (FFF) President Jean-Pierre Escalettes. This forced the hitman to rapidly pack his bags, before being sent home from the tournament.
The following day, Domenech’s impotence to deal with his squad of egos was fully realised in spectacular fashion. Following the decision to send Anelka home, the rest of the squad protested by refusing to take part in training. The session started off like any other, and was open for fans to spectate. The French squad began by signing autographs, and the sombre mood that surrounded the camp seemed to have been temporarily lifted. However, as the players took to the pitch, Evra could be seen having a row with the fitness coach, Robert Duverne. The confrontation ended as Domenech was forced to pull the two Frenchmen apart.
Evra stormed off to the team bus, and he was promptly followed by the rest of his colleagues – who pulled the curtains closed for good measure. When the rebellious squad eventually emerged, they were clutching a letter, which it fell to Domenech to read out. “All of the players without exception want to declare their opposition to the decision taken by the FFF to exclude Nicolas Anelka from the squad,” the manager said, in what has been described by many as the darkest hour for Les Blues. “At the request of the squad, the player in question attempted to have dialogue but his approach was ignored.”
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As the players and FFF frantically began to contradict themselves, the country’s hopes for qualification became only a disturbing fever dream. In the final group game against the tournament hosts, France fell to a 2-1 defeat, meaning they finished rooted to the bottom of their group without gaining a single win.
Finally, the embarrassment was over. Just as quickly as they had landed in South Africa, the French squad found themselves packing their bags to leave. This time they would take with them an all too familiar feeling of shame, and the weight of a nation’s disappointment weighing heavily on their backs.
As for Domenech, he had effectively been a dead man walking before the tournament had even begun. He was to be replaced by former French stalwart Laurent Blanc, and bowed out of his tenure after one last example of his pettiness. After the final group stage defeat, Domenech refused to shake the hand of the South African manager, making it his final action before being replaced – and perhaps going some way to setting out his poor future reputation.
Even though the manager’s job was done, the spotlight was still firmly fixated on the players, and the French fans demanded answers. As the squad flew back in economy class, Blanc was already coming up with some big ideas to start his reign. Subsequently, the entire World Cup squad were banned from their country’s next fixture, and the five key players in the mutiny were named and shamed, before being given bans depending on their level of involvement.
When the disciplinary committees finished, the country gradually moved on. And thankfully for Les Bleus, the next few tournaments showed remarkable signs of improvement. Euro 2012 saw them reach the quarter-finals before being knocked out by eventual champions Spain, a stage France matched in Brazil two years later. However, the most noticeable change came just last year, during Euro 2016. The French topped their group and comfortably saw off Ireland, Iceland and then Germany on their route to the final. Portugal were their last obstacle to finally reaching glory again, but an extra-time strike from Éder broke the hearts of Les Bleus, surely by now an agonisingly familiar feeling.
With a promising new generation of footballers on the cusp of bringing a trophy back to the land of romance, the debacle of the 2010 World Cup may now only seem like a faraway nightmare for the French people. But there is no denying what happened, and it is certain to forever remain the darkest moment in French football – a shady, vulgar blot on an otherwise sparkling and rich history. They say that romance never dies – but in this case, football proved to be its real killer.