The French media and public have slammed their national team as the "laughing stock of the world", a "big farce" and Nicolas Anelka as "enfant terrible"after the football team refused to train on Sunday over the decision to send the star striker home.
Once dubbed "Le Sulk" by English media for his surly attitude, Anelka was sent home by the French Football Federation after he refused to apologise for his expletive-filled outburst at coach Raymond Domenech. Anelka called Domenech "a dirty son of a whore", sports daily L'Equipe reported.
In a twist, it was the deeply unpopular coach who was left to read out the team statement after they walked out from the training base, ironically dubbed the "Field of Dreams". The French team was already under fire for their underwhelming performances against Uruguay and Mexico, which have placed them on the brink of an early World Cup exit - a shocking situation for the 1998 champions. The coach of French football club Sochaux said France was the "laughing stock of the world".
"The players today confirmed they do not deserve a place at the World Cup," ESPN reported Francis Gillot as saying. "Today I am thinking of the Irish - they should have been there in our place. The attitude (of the France squad) is both pathetic and disgraceful. Such words and acts should never occur in the dressing room. I find it pathetic that the players support a teammate who has insulted the coach.
L'Equipe asked in an editorial if the team know they still have a match to play against South Africa on Tuesday. "The World Cup of Les Bleus is transforming itself into a big farce. It is not (yet) over and it is unclear whether the players themselves are aware."
Bixente Lizarazu, a member of the victorious 1998 squad, compared the extraordinary events to cult TV series X-Files. "We're in an episode of X-Files, it's science fiction," he told RTL radio. "Everyone's losing it." Marcel Desailly, his teammate in that squad, told Britain's ITV: "We love this generation of players. We are really sad. It's a shame."
France24 wrote in an editorial that Anelka, who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League, had a reputation for being the "enfant terrible of French football".
"While his individual talent is undeniable, Anelka has repeatedly failed to win over the hearts of his compatriots. His reputation as the enfant terrible of French football and his unsociable character kept him from being picked during the three previous World Cups."
Observers like Lizarazu were already furious at Anelka's casual attitude during France's first two games against Uruguay and Mexico. "What bothers me is Nicolas Anelka's performance in the first half. I saw a player strolling ... strolling in the World Cup!" Lizarazu said. "He wasn't aggressive, wasn't interested in the game. Domenech took him off at the break, but should have done so before. You shouldn't play in a selfish manner, you have to show you're up for it."
Winner of the English Premier League's Golden Boot in 2008/09, Anelka has long been an enigmatic player for France. He scored twice in a stunning performance against England way back in 1999, but then refused to play under coach Jacques Santini. He spent three years out of the national team until Domenech called him back up in November 2005. Six months later, Domenech snubbed him for the 2006 squad. But Anelka seemed to have put that behind him when he scored a deflected goal against Ireland in a World Cup play-off last November.
Anelka's abrupt nature has made him few friends over a topsy-turvy career during which he has always spoken his mind. In 2003, Anelka reportedly said after he was rejected for Les Bleus by then-manager Santini: “I do not need the French squad. If he kneels before me and apologises, then I'll think about it.” But his unselfish attitude for Chelsea this season won him many admirers, and his reputation had greatly improved since his "Le Sulk" days.
The French press has churned out headline after headline on Les Bleus in the past week, calling them "the impostors", "disgraceful" and "pathetic" after their Mexico loss. "France woke up looking at a field of ruins - the national team - with a lump in their throat, a few tears in their eyes, but Les Bleus don't deserve it," wrote Fabrice Jouhaud, editor-in-chief of L'Equipe. "No sadness, no grief, above all no anger ... You can only laugh at the fact that those players are big in the head and not so big below the belt," he added. L'Equipe's football lead writer Vincent Duluc lamented that "the only thing left of a big dream and of a former great soccer country is the emptiness ... of a goalless first round ... the feeling of a total wreck, in game and spirit".
The other national newspapers were equally critical. "It was Waterloo in the Limpopo", wrote the conservative Le Figaro referring to Napoleon's defeat in 1815 and to the South African province where the game took place. France Soir claimed that "Les Bleus shamed France" and added: "If all the rumours buzzing around them are confirmed they will deserve the title of worst internationals in the history of France football, maybe not as players but surely as men." Le Monde, one of the most respected newspapers in France, drew a parallel between "les Bleus vanquished, humiliated, pilloried" and 2010 France. "Their (Les Bleus) lack of leadership, strategy, team spirit ... all these spoiled talents, these unused resources form the cruel metaphor of a country that is often struggling to gather together, overcome glumness and division, and mobilise its strength," the paper said in an unsigned editorial.
Domenech, whose popularity has plummeted since the unexpected high of reaching the 2006 World Cup final, said whatever happened, Les Bleus needed to exit the tournament with their heads held high. "It is for us to simply show something, to be able to say 'we played to the end, we never let up'. That would appear to be the most important thing for me," said Domenech after the team's defeat against Mexico.
Barbier summed up the nation's frustration with Les Bleus, asking: "The real question is: where is the team? Whether it's Domenech or the star players, if there is no team to begin with, there is no soul."
The French squad is expected to train today, but behind closed doors, The Guardian newspaper reported. They are also expected to take to the field for their crunch game against the host nation.