As French humiliations go, and there have been many, crashing out of the Soccer World Cup competition in South Africa on Tuesday was the worst in recent memory. It hit the French hard in what's left of their national pride and they may need years to earn it back.
France's defeat in the opening round of the World Cup followed a weekend of antics never before witnessed at this level of international competition, leaving fans wondering until game time Tuesday whether their squabbling team would even come out of the dressing room to face South Africa. Backbiting and mutiny had got well out of hand, with the players disavowing their coach and accusing each other of lacking talent.
Their loss (2-1) was a foregone conclusion. South Africa ran circles around them, leaving them last in their group and eliminated from the competition.
The team began to fall apart at halftime Friday when striker Nicolas Anelka insulted Coach Raymond Domenech in the privacy of the dressing room. His words, roughly translated into English, were "Go f*** yourself, you dirty SOB !" In French, this is such strong language that television commentators would not actually repeat it. A few did however hold up to camera the front page of l'Equipe, the French sports daily, which splashed the insult (with no abbreviations or asterisks) on page one Saturday morning.
What happens in the dressing room is supposed to stay in the dressing room but someone, yet to be identified, shared the incident with the correspondent of l'Equipe. Domenech went ballistic when he learned of the publication and, in agreement with the French Football Federation, decided to sack Anelka and send him back to London, where he is a star player for Chelsea.
Now it was the team's turn to go ballistic. Recriminations and threats flew in the hotel on Saturday, punctuated with a botched press conference at which participants contradicted each other on the sequence of events and on the basic question of whether Anelka's dismissal was justified. The team thought not. The Federation thought otherwise.
One journalist on the scene called the performance "un cauchemar," a nightmare, for the poor preparation and failure to agree on how to present the affair to the public.
The French team has been known to be under strain for the past four years, with cliques at war with each other and Domenech disliked by just about everyone. He has been reported to make his lineup selections based in part on compatible star signs. His communications skills with his players, the press and the public are severely limited. It was already decided that he would be replaced after this World Cup.
THE CRISIS BECAME AN AFFAIR OF STATE when President Nicolas Sarkozy, co-chairing a St. Petersburg press conference with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, said in answer to a French journalist's question that Anelka's comments were "inacceptable, inacceptable." Medvedev looked uncomfortable as the questioning veered away from the carefully prepared French-Russian friendship message.
Back in South Africa, the drama continued to unfold. The final French practice was suddenly canceled on Sunday just as it was about to get under way. Television cameras caught long shots of Domenech, team captain Patrice Evra, and other staff shouting and pushing each other around on the field. No blows were actually landed.
By now the French public was aghast that their team, world champions in 1998, had collapsed in disarray so publicly. Sunday TV commentators, sportswriters and some of my personal friends erupted with comments such as "pathetic," "a national disgrace," "spoiled children," "cry-babies" and, as one national newspaper put it, "We are now the laughingstock of the entire world."
The climax of Sunday's episode ended when the players climbed back in their bus but refused to allow Coach Domenech aboard. The bus pulled away and Domenech hitched a ride with South Africa security men. A full-blown mutiny was now under way.
On Monday the team members remained holed up in their hotel room until flying off to Bloemfontein for their final match. Some players refused to play, leaving Domenech with a hodgepodge of second-stringers trying to get to know each other in real time.
It takes no great effort to project the short-tempered French team's behavior onto France today as a nation, where nerves are frayed in the present weak economy. France likes to think of itself as a combative culture, but the current level of anger and resentment is well above normal.
The rest of Europe is also tightening its belt to reduce deficits and save the euro, but only the French are so belligerent over planned cutbacks in the welfare state, including raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. Sarkozy has been forced to work linguistic miracles to avoid saying "rigeur," a scare word to French trade unions.
Just as its soccer players are considered grossly overpaid, French workers enjoy comfortable protections -- but now from an impoverished state treasury. Both resent any attempt to rein them in.
As my neighbor summed it up, "France has not worked well since military conscription was given up in the 1990s. Our young men do not know the meaning of discipline. You see this everywhere, in the workplace and on the soccer field."