Sports Nut

The French Dejection

The sordid details behind the collapse and mutiny of France’s national soccer team.

This article originally appeared in, Slate’s French sister site. It was translated by Cécile Dehesdin. See all of Slate’s World Cup coverage.

Raymond Domenech

The French soccer team lost 2-1 to South Africa on Tuesday, ending its World Cup run. The defeat is the culmination of a chaotic few days that began when the sports daily L’Equipe published striker Nicolas Anelka’s alleged abusive comments to coach Raymond Domenech. Since then, Anelka was expelled from the team, the team went on strike and refused to practice, team captain Patrice Evra almost fought with fitness coach Robert Duverne over the revolt, and Domenech ended up reading a letter to the press on behalf of the players. To get caught up on all the details of the scandal, read the FAQ below.

What did Anelka say?

Different sources have reported different versions of Anelka’s rant, which came at halftime of France’s match with Mexico. According to L’Equipe, Anelka said, “Go get yourself fucked in the ass, you dirty son of a whore.” Le Parisien’s version: “You and your system can go get fucked in the ass.” And according to other sources: “Go fuck your mother.” Did Anelka say all of this to Domenech’s face, as L’Equipe reports? Domenech and French Football Federation President Jean-Pierre Escalettes say no—that Anelka said it under his breath somewhere in the locker room. During a press conference on Saturday afternoon, team captain Patrice Evra said he had put an end to the altercation by saying, “What are you playing at? We have a game to win.” In any case, the coach didn’t let it fly and put Anelka on the bench in the second half.

Would the French Football Federation have sent Anelka home if the insults had not been made public?

No. This may actually be the clearest part of the whole story. Domenech said he got overAnelka’s outburst quickly and wasn’t asking for a public apology. Football federation Secretary Henri Monteil explained it to regional daily La Charente Libre: “Nothing would have filtered out if L’Equipe hadn’t reported it. I only learned of it on Saturday. President Jean-Pierre Escalettes knew since the day before that. He thought it wouldn’t leave the room.”

After the remarks became public, Escalettes got together with Domenech, team captain Patrice Evra, and Anelka. Anelka agreed to apologize in front of the team and staff, but not in public. In his hotel suite, Escalettes gathered the federation’s leaders, and they opted to dismiss Anelka. “I’m sorry,” Escalettes told Anelka when he announced the ruling.

This reactive decision enraged the team’s senior players. Thierry Henry, William Gallas, Eric Abidal, Patrice Evra, and Franck Ribery resented the federation for yielding to a media frenzy they felt was unjustified. This is one of the big paradoxes of the whole scandal: On the one hand, Evra and Ribery have called the insult “unacceptable” and “intolerable.” On the other hand, the players don’t seem to have ever considered dismissing Anelka. Same goes for some of the elders from the 1998 World Cup-winning French team. Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Viera timidly criticized the team’s attitude, but they sent Anelka notes of support after his exclusion.

Should L’Equipe have put this piece of information on its front page?

It’s been a while since essays about the team’s use of a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation were relegated to the background of the daily. Fabrice Jouhaud, L’Equipe editor in chief since the summer of 2008, wants to sell papers and have a clear editorial line, something soccer weekly France Football has failed to do in recent years. Who cares about the chalkboard—it’s all about what’s going on in the locker room.

Young (he’s not even 40), aggressive, and daring, Jouhaud bets on gossip, as his front page piece on Ronaldo and his love handles on a Brazilian beach in September 2008 can attest. L’Equipe is now following the trail of Le Parisien, the national daily that infuriated then coach Roger Lemerre during the 2002 World Cup by revealing internal chatter and team selections.

The sports daily, like other French sports media, wants one thing: an internal source—a mole or a traitor, depending on who’s speaking—to juice up its reporting. For a month, L’Equipe has been reporting the daily lives of the players by talking to their entourages, since the athletes themselves have become physically unapproachable.

Those publications are in a special spot, as they are generally the only media the players read. The players also sometimes use them to convey messages. But what if this great play for sales ends up making this special relationship with the players counterproductive?

Does this kind of fight happen a lot in locker rooms?

It does in amateur soccer, but much less on the professional level, at least face to face. “I’ve never seen that here,” said Nancy player Jonathan Brison, even though his coach is Pablo Correa, known for his colorful language and his irritating personality. Domenech’s predecessor Jacques Santini told Le Parisien he had never endured such an attack in the locker room.

When some of Marseille’s players started grumbling about coach Didier Deschamps at the end of January, they didn’t insult him—or if they did, it was only for their agents’ benefit. During a talk set up by the coach, narrated the next day by L’Equipe, they only halfheartedly criticized his tactical choices. A few weeks earlier, during a training session, player Hatem Ben Arfa had muttered, “You’re breaking my balls” when Deschamps had asked him to properly tuck his jersey in his shorts. The player had to pay a fine and apologize to the coach.

Have the French players lost all sense of reality?

The revolt’s leaders don’t seem to understand that their behavior is shocking. When the players went on strike to protest Anelka’s dismissal, they explained in a letter that they realized they were “role-models for children.” Seeing how far they are from that role right now, the players are either displaying utter cynicism or the worst case of naïveté ever. “I don’t think they’re aware of the disastrous image they have in France or the rest of the world,” explains Gregory Schneider, the French daily Libération’s correspondent in South Africa.

Not all players involved in the dissent should be looked at equally. There are leaders in the group, and there are followers. Federation Secretary Henri Monteil tells La Charente Libre that “some players went to see Domenech in his room. They were crying. They were saying they regretted what was going on. Young players. I can’t give you names. In any case, the three or four leaders are aging players, who will never again play the World Cup.”

Is Domenech overwhelmed?

He’s not controlling anything anymore, abandoned by his players literally and figuratively. Sunday night in Knysna, Domenech and his staff had to take a car back to the hotel. The team had already left in the official bus. Without them.

Before that, Domenech weakened himself when he read the players’ press release bemoaning Anelka’s expulsion and explaining why the team wasn’t training. That task should have lain with the team’s press person, or even federation President Jean-Pierre Escalettes, who had seen the letter. By reading their letter to the press, Domenech gave his support to the mutiny, even if he denied it later on at a press conference.

Captain of a drifting boat, Domenech is almost inspiring pity. “He’s feeling very low,” his mother, Germaine, said on national radio.

Will the team lose its sponsors?

If soccer players are overpaid, their sponsors are the ones footing a big part of the bill. The stars’ salaries and endorsement contracts rely on one intangible value: the players’ image, and the French players have greatly sullied theirs. French fast-food chain Quick already decided to drop Anelka from its national campaign, though the player can still count on sponsors Puma and Pringles. He probably won’t be the only casualty.

Along with the individual players, the image of the French team as a whole has been sullied. French bank Credit Agricole canceled television ads featuring the team, and GDF Suez and Adidas condemned the players’ attitude. The sums at stake are important: The French Football Federation earned 25 million euros from sponsorships in 2006. The blow is especially hard for Adidas, the team’s uniform manufacturer, since sales will not reach projections. Luckily for the federation, it already negotiated—and negotiated very well—its contract for 2011-14. For the sum of 42.6 million euros a year, Nike will inherit a team with mediocre results that’s perceived as arrogant and stupid.

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