Let’s get one thing straight. I am not a francophile. But I am not a francophobe either. Sure, I hate the music (who actually likes Serge Gainsbourg, anyway?), and I’m irritated by the pretentious treatment of food as art, but I do like the wine (who doesn’t?), and I like the movies (Betty Blue was a highlight of the 1980s)… Today, however, I must admit to celebrating the fall of La Republique.
Why I am celebrating is the deeper question. Football needs to re-examine itself. It would be easy to blame this whole debacle on the French manager. Indeed Raymond Domenech is pilloried across the football community as a brusque man with no people skills. Brian Kerr, the ex manager of the Republic of Ireland, called him “an extremely rude and ignorant man” on Morning Ireland yesterday. It would also be easy to blame it on the Gallic mentality and the propensity for striking and protest that seems to be concentrated to 100 proof in France—think taxi drivers, lorry drivers, air traffic controller strikes. But that’s not it. It’s more an indictment of the modern footballer and his inflated sense of self worth, and even more so a severe warning to FIFA to start putting its house in order on the commercial front.
The basic premise upon which a football squad is built is not dissimilar to that of a fascist dictatorship: all the great teams had one leader; one person who called the shots, and anyone who misunderstood the hierarchy was dispatched. But for this system to work you must have the right man in charge.
Ireland in 2002 did not have the right man in Mick McCarthy and lost their best shot at the title because of infighting and bad management, but even Mick was a damn sight more in control than Domenech. Diego Maradona, for all his perceived madness has the right attitude. He hugs the players with a big smile when they are substituted. He has instilled a sense of family and camaraderie into the Argentina squad. Mourinho does exactly the same at club level. Millionaire 21-year-olds will walk across coals for the “special one.” Wenger at Arsenal seems to lack the magic touch and avoids signing any ‘big name players’ in favor of grooming 15-year-olds through the Arsenal ranks. Ferguson at Manchester United adopts the ‘Fatherly’ approach and famously had every taxi driver in Manchester on his phone list as lookouts for errant footballers sneaking into nightclubs. All of the above never, ever adopted the consultative approach, never entertained the culture of agents and representatives. These men are football men and they are being marginalized by an industry that seems to be growing like weeds through the grass roots of the game.
But the French team were a disgrace. A disgrace to any French football fan who spent any amount of money supporting this team who gave up the ghost at the first sign of adversity. The great french players like Zidane, Platini, Tigana, Fontaine must have been watching the totally inadequate displays through gritted teeth: Henry, the shadow of the player he once was, left sulking on the bench for most of the tournament; Benzema, the young and talented heir to the Platini throne left at home; Ribery, ineffective, and still it seemed, haunted by the allegations of underage prostitution; Malouda, the shining light in Chelsea’s season reduced to a bench warmer by a manager obviously struggling with egos and personalities.
By the end of the tournament they had become laughable. The sponsors all bid retreats so hasty it was like Dunkirk all over again. The final starting XI was like a reserve team featuring only players who obviously had bitten their lips during the last few days. They fly home with their tails between their legs and the most stylish centre half that France has produced in modern times get’s the job of putting it all together again as the Laurent Blanc era begins.
Who is to blame for all this? The French FA for appointing Domenech? Domenech for failing miserably as an international manager? The players for their totally unprofessional and childish behavior? It’s like the Dylan song about the boxer Davey Moore who died in the ring. Dylan asks us was it the boxer who killed him? Was it the manager who knew he was sick? Was it the gambling man?
In this case, football is the big loser: the game has eaten itself by creating an industry of agents, managers, owners, sponsors, TV executives and untold hangers-on and sycophants around these big money commodities blessed with physical attributes that allow them to do magical things with a leather sphere.
Once you allow a player of John Terry’s mindset, a man with exaggerated opinions of himself, the forum to cast aspersions over the management—a captain of his national team publicly criticizing team selection—you have a problem. Capello, much more the astute manager than Domenech has nipped a potential revolt in the bud by slapping down the player rather than martyring him like Domenech and McCarthy before him. If both Anelka and Keane had been reprimanded and kept on, then the manager would have had the upper hand.
When money corrupts street kids and when agents and managers and chairmen are constantly telling these boys that they are heroes, they are leaders, they are better than everyone, sooner or later even John Terry starts to believe it.