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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Domenech exits, fittingly, in disgrace

La fin. Let the discredits roll. Let Les Bleus depart the total shambles that they are. Their World Cup 2010 experience has been so unfathomably awful, it is hard to know where to begin with the inquest. A poll conducted by Canal Plus split the blame pretty evenly between the players, the manager and the French Football Federation. All of them have blundered their way through South Africa in their own special way.

Typically, after a week of strikes, resignations and accusations, France left the tournament with a row. As if he did not have enough enemies, Raymond Domenech finished by rounding on his South Africa counterpart, Carlos Alberto Parreira, for comments made in November that, because of Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland, France did not deserve to be at the World Cup. On the displays they have produced here, it would be hard to argue that Parreira was wrong.

"I was very polite at the end of the game but he claimed I had offended him. I cannot for the life of me understand why," said Parreira. "I went to greet Domenech [at] the final whistle as a matter of politeness because I knew he was stepping down. But he told me I had offended the French team. I said I had no idea what he was talking about, but he mentioned what I said about the 'Hand of Gaul' incident. It is just lamentable."

Lamentable describes everything about what must be the worst World Cup campaign ever staged by a major footballing nation. The strike action on the Field of Dreams training pitches; the dressing-room rows; the dismissal of Nicolas Anelka; the decision to appoint Patrice Evra as captain in place of Henry and then to strip him of it before this latest debacle. On Monday, the French sports minister, Roselyne Bachelot, came to Bloemfontein to tell the France squad that they are "no longer heroes in the eyes of the nation's children". Today, those players will fly to Paris to see their own children again. And they will make the 10-hour flight in economy. In contrast the South African president, Jacob Zuma, went to the dressing rooms at the Free State Stadium to congratulate his players, saying they had won the World Cup when they were awarded it. Needless to say, the French mood was different. "I have never been a boxer but I feel like I have been knocked out cold," said Florent Malouda.

Even before kick-off in a match they surrendered before the interval, there was a final confrontation. "Did some players refuse to take part in this game? Well not exactly," said Domenech, his thin voice drowned by the blare of the vuvuzelas. "But Eric Abidal came to me and said he was no longer in a fit mental state to play." Neither were his colleagues – except perhaps for Franck Ribéry, who led a counter-attack of sorts that created a goal for Malouda, ending what had seemed a relentless South African charge towards the landslide victory that would have sent them through on goal difference.

But how has it come to this? For a group of the 1998 World Cup winners who are all attending this World Cup for one reason or another – Zinedine Zidane is showing his ambassadorial face, Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit are TV pundits, Thierry Henry is on the inside – it must feel like the betrayal of their heritage. Mutiny, treachery, bitchiness, on top of abject performances on the pitch. This fiasco is everything that their triumphant team of old was not.

You can't say that a sorry World Cup was not on the cards though. Two years ago at Euro 2008 France hurried out of the tournament on the first available plane with no wins and just one goal to their name. They had, as Florent Malouda described it, lost their identity. During qualification to this World Cup it remained astray. And now it has vanished altogether.

So, farewell then Raymond. Another disjointed and spineless performance is a fitting epitaph to a desperately bizarre period for Les Bleus. Monsieur Domenech will go down in the record books as their longest-serving coach. He will be remembered as the man who excruciatingly proposed to his girlfriend on live television after France's exit at Euro 2008. He will be cursed as the man who oversaw the most unsavoury campaign in the history of French football. He left the stage with a moody refusal to shake the hand of his opposite number. He is a toe-curler extraordinaire.

But the extent to which he alone was responsible for this mess remains subject for debate; Domenech's status has always been compromised. People believe that Zidane effectively took over in 2006. This time, his authority was challenged by the famous five – Franck Ribéry, William Gallas, Patrice Evra, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka – and by the strident opinions of Malouda. He was never really in control. The way he stood vacantly as France slumped to defeat against Mexico, the way he was forced to read out the statement from players who refused to train, paints an emphatic picture of a lame duck.

Back to Tuesday's debacle. Usually, when a team makes wholesale changes in the third group game it is because they have already qualified. Not so as Domenech felt obliged to rip up his teamsheet. Most of the players he identified as the worst of the troublemakers were excluded from the starting line-up, with the exception of Gallas and Ribéry. Ridiculously, Gallas sang along to La Marseillaise with gusto. How bizarre, considering it is something he has not been known for doing during his long international career as he is one of those players who prefers to abstain. What a coincidence to suddenly remember the words after 83 caps. A calculated move? The French public will have to make their own minds up on that one. "We will do everything individually and also in a collective spirit to ensure that France regains its honour with a positive performance," read the statement presented by players who went on strike in support of Anelka two days ago. That statement, incidentally, had been prepared by lawyers in advance.

In the end, the men in whom Domenech trusted were a strange bunch. Djibril Cissé performed just as people in Liverpool would remember. The ponderous André-Pierre Gignac was replaced at half-time, while Yoann Gourcuff – the victim of most of the poison that bubbled up at their base in Kynysa – was sent off early for aiming an elbow into MacBeth Sibaya's neck. Domenech placed his head into his hands. He spent most of the match impotently surveying a wreckage that was partly his own making – just as Thomas Andrews, the Titanic's architect, stared at a picture of Plymouth Sound as his grand design went down. Finally, and hopelessly late, he brought on Henry. Since France were two goals down and minus Gourcuff, it was asking a lot for him to change things.

France cracked early as the hosts, who 11 days ago had travelled to Johannesburg expecting to be humiliated, produced a performance worthy of an African team in the first African World Cup. Hugo Lloris went to punch Siphiwe Tshabalala's corner and missed, allowing Bongani Khumalo to rise above Abou Diaby and head home. The stadium exploded, and when Katlego Mphela bundled in the second, created by Tshabalala's cross, they needed just three more goals, from either a South African or Uruguayan boot. Uruguay broke through in Rustenburg while Mphela had two opportunities, driving one venomously on to the post and the other, from a much tighter angle, into the side-netting. Then came the French goal and the acceptance that there were no more miracles. Nobody in their right mind would have bet a rand on a second-half turnaround. And so it finished with France in deep humiliation again: an early exit, without a win, and barely a goal, for the third time in their last five tournaments.

Amid the whirl of negative emotions, comes relief. There will be an inquest, but also a fresh start. The coach of the future, Laurent Blanc, has spent most of this World Cup on his holidays in Marrakech. On the one hand he is distraught by what has happened. On the other, he knows he can only arrive like a knight in shining armour. He has raw talent at his disposal and he has the wherewithal to mould it with more natural class and aptitude than his predecessor. The French Federation have made a good choice, but their timing was awful. A positive change at the top should have happened ages ago. As a consequence of their blind loyalty, French football fans have endured a tournament with so many recriminations they must wish they had never set eyes on it. Honestly, what a surreal story. Even Jean Cocteau wouldn't have dreamed this one up.

There were many who wondered why South Africa had chosen to stage their decisive fixture at a rugby stadium in the heart of the old Afrikaner republic. There, said one taxi driver, "they do not use the vuvuzela – they sing". And when South Africa were two up and heading for redemption, they began a beautiful rhythmic chant; one of the sounds of the World Cup. 

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