Once, the French football team were what united a divided nation in joy, with “Blacks, Blancs et Beurs” - blacks, whites and Arabs - alike all embracing on a Champs Elysees awash with passion and pride after their success in 1998. Now the football side's lack of cohesiveness, bewilderment at their leader and embarrassing behaviour in front of a global audience is again bringing everyone together, although this time it is in condemnation of beleaguered national boss Raymond Domenech.
France's 2-0 defeat to Mexico on Thursday night was predictably met with anger in the press - “Imposters” was the front page headline L’Equipe used – but the fallout to Sunday's bust-up has been apocalyptic. The players may have taken the steps from the pitch, Anelka may have been the man to dish out the profanities but, in everyone's eyes, it is Domenech alone who must carry the can.
Pretty much everyone in France saw their loss to Mexico coming, although they prayed their prophecy wouldn't see the light of day. Fewer foresaw the explosion prompted by Nicolas Anelka's dismissal from the squad. And although many hoped Domenech would be dealt the final blow by internal warfare, no-one wanted it at this critical stage.
Patrice Evra's set-to with the team's fitness coach and the resulting walkout from training by the entire squad is a victory for the large anti-Domenech section but in the current context, it is a hollow one. The embarrassment of 21 well-paid, well-treated professional footballers shaming the nation even more after two poor performances on the field is proving too much back in their home country.
Many of Domenech's team knew of their imminent downfall. The longest-serving France manager of all time, the 58-year-old has long been a joke figure amongst the press and even his own players. Thierry Henry's mixed expression of amusement tinged with rage at his exclusion from the action demonstrated as much when the camera repeatedly cut to him during the Mexico loss.
Yet somehow the coach finds himself in South Africa, albeit on a swansong trip with his calamitous tenure finally drawing to a close when his team bow out of the competition. And don't the enemies he has made within his own ranks know it. Laurent Blanc will step into the chair for the Euro 2012 qualifiers and many of the players seem happy to bide their time for that moment, confident they will see a World Cup again.
Others, such as William Gallas and the now-jettisoned Nicolas Anelka, will be fortunate to have the legs to be participants in Brazil in four years time. But they seemed serene enough to be passengers throughout the first two games, playing at a pace which suggests they are using the three group stage matches as pre-season affairs to build themselves up for the new English Premier League season.
FRENCH FOOTBALL TEAM IN CRISIS
A good deal of the sulking from within the French rank stems from not just the coach's off-field antics but also his tactical ineptness. Domenech tried to show he had some grasp on that side of things when he surprisingly reverted to a 4-3-3 formation for three warm-up matches and the 0-0 draw with Uruguay. The 4-2-3-1 was back out in force for the Mexico debacle, with his front men played out of position and not place for Henry to come on and change things.
Somehow through it all, Domenech continues, as if unaffected by any mishap that befalls his reign. But if he is suffering now for the ultimate humiliation after Sunday's events, every writer in France will be queuing up to tell the story of how he deserves that feeling. The coach, they will say, should feel remorse for the lack of harmony he has fostered within the France squad throughout his four year tenure. If he is looking for someone to point the finger at for the revolt, it should not be Anelka, the players he has alienated or the unidentified 'traitor' within the ranks he identifies, it should be himself.
Having bought himself some time after turning their fortunes around four years ago, overcoming a slow start to finish as the beaten finalists to Italy, Domenech likely knows himself he should have been on his way after an early exit from Euro 2008. As if that wasn't enough, he used his post-match interview after their defeat to Romania to propose to his girlfriend, rather than offer his apologies. Previous misdemeanours include not selecting players based on his astrological views and a series of fall-outs with his own players, who are said to have repeatedly brought his judgement into question.
The French Football Federation shouldn't avoid charge either for allowing this crisis to rage on behind the scenes. Keeping Domenech after the European Championships was their fatal error but they had repeated opportunities to salvage their World Cup chances by sacking him. The Ireland play-off match was once such golden chance, yet the FFF allowed their man to continue until after the tournament that matters so dearly to those back home. In doing so, they wrote off the 2010 World Cup for France.
Naming Blanc as his successor before the World Cup was another faux pas, as if the federation were sending Domenech to the tournament having washed their hands of him beforehand, without actually removing him from the job. "France and Domenech fail in South Africa? Not our fault" would be the default response. They still have the power to finally do the necessary in sacking him before their third game, whereupon the players may have to take it upon themselves to construct a system and garner enough spirit to somehow reach the last 16.
There are still star men within the French ranks who have shown glimpses of their willingness to try whoever is in charge. Without goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, the defeat to Mexico would have been far heavier. Patrice Evra, named Domenech’s captain at the expense of William Gallas pre-tournament, has spoken of his “disgust” at his team’s performance, saying they “owe it to themselves to beat South Africa” in their final group match.
France have suffered the humiliation of a first round exit before after playing at a World Cup final, going out early in 2002 after an opening day defeat by Senegal set them back. But no performance, both on and off the park, has unleashed such indignation amongst those who dreamt of descending on their town squares to rub shoulders with all, united as football fans, once more. Doubters may say no-one could possibly have seen such calamity befalling Les Bleus. Well, with Monsieur Domenech at the helm, there could yet be worse to come.