Not since Madame Defarge knitted furiously and Sidney Carton professed it was a far far better thing that he was about to throw himself metaphorically on his sword, has France witnessed a revolution like it, but even Dickens would have been hard put to have written a story as utterly compelling, and yet utterly inept as the France World Cup story of 2010.
Even before their lugubrious qualifying campaign, where the hand of Thierry reduced the Irish and the Danish referee following the game to tears, and gifted the French an undeserved finals berth, the reign of manager Raymond Domenech has been something of an uneasy period in French football.
All the more surprising is that he was given more time than any other manager in France’s illustrious history to get it right.
There were rumours of Domenech being effectively overruled by senior players within the team as far back as 2006, when a Zinedine Zidane inspired France reached the final of the World Cup, losing only on penalties to eventual winners Italy. Zidane’s influence was reportedly seen as much off the field as it was on it, with the midfielder reckoned to be the dominant, leading force of the French team, rather than the manager.
Zidane’s retirement after 2006 would leave a hole in French football that has proved impossible to fill. In the 2008 European Championships, France were sent home early humiliated in the group stages and Domenech, once again, caused a degree of consternation by proposing to his girlfriend live on television, moments after the final whistle had blown to eliminate his team.
He’d already admitted that he consulted the stars to help him decide his teams, arguing that certain star signs worked better to promote team harmony.
It sounds a facile argument and given the startling lack of harmony on show within the French squad in South Africa, I think the French public has every right to view such nonsense as precisely that.
Domenech hung on despite an ordinary and uninspiring 2010 qualifying campaign. He caused a surprise by leaving Samir Nasri, Patrick Vieira and Karim Benzema out of his finals squad. Three absences in particular that would come back to haunt him given the lack of drive so often provided by Vieira, guile from Nasri and goal threat from Benzema, that France displayed in their three games.
However Domenech became nothing more than a figure of ridicule after the argument with Florent Malouda revealed deep rifts within the squad. Nicolas Anelka, with the characteristic petulance we’ve all come to know, had a stand up row with the manager after being subbed in the first two games and was sent home for his foul-mouthed rebuke of the manager. What followed was as comical as it was farcical. Players on strike, fitness coaches resigning, French Football Federation officials quitting and the sight of a manager reading a statement to the press was as saddening for a once great nation, as it must have been humiliating for the manager.
The final game defeat to South Africa was the perfect finish to a miserable tournament, where player power and managerial ineptitude effectively ended any chance France had of success. Without the cement of Zidane to hold the team together, the team ripped itself apart. Five ‘experienced’ professionals, Henry, Evra, Abidal, Ribery and Gallas seemingly being the chief instigators of the player revolt which divided the camp, undermined Domenech and provided such woeful performances that so blighted the French campaign.
With Laurent Blanc coming in as a new manager following the finals and French football now at its nadir, you can only hope that the former national team skipper can galvanise a shell-shocked nation. He can take comfort in the fact that things can only improve.
But for all Domenech’s many and varied failings, the lack of support he was given by senior players in the French squad should be a great concern for Blanc and it is difficult to know if the former Bordeaux manager will want to have an entirely fresh start as manager of Les Bleus. Anelka’s already announced his international retirement. It seems likely that Gallas, Abidal and Henry will most likely follow suit.
How Domenech has gone from the quirky saviour of French football to an almost Clouseau-esque tragic-comedy figure is partly down to his managerial style and lack of authority, however to lay the blame solely at his door is wrong. The support he received from senior players was feeble and the fact the French FA chose to ignore this and let it fester is equally culpable for the current state of affairs.
Les Bleus will be hoping their Euro 2012 campaign is a big improvement, having a manager who does not pick his team based upon star signs will probably help, but having a squad that is going to pull together and work for the manager will be of far more value to Blanc in the long term.
And to achieve that, a few more big names, alongside the reviled Domenech, may well find their names in Madame Defarge’s knitting, facing La Guillotine…