France ready to grumble all the way to final

Image of Simon Kuper

Before the World Cup there was a curious absence of football advertisements on Parisian hoardings. Finally one appeared. “Get a television free,” it said, “if France win the World Cup.”

The advertiser had clearly judged that that was a pretty safe offer. If there is a more pessimistic country than France represented at the World Cup, it must be a miserable place to visit. After France gave their standard tedious performance while drawing their opening game 0-0 against Uruguay, even the last French optimists wrote them off. Thursday’s game against Mexico probably won’t be pretty either. Yet the nation should rethink. As history shows, this despised team could go far.

Admittedly, the French have much to be pessimistic about. Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland got them to the tournament, then Spain mauled them in March and, soon afterwards, their last popular player, Franck Ribéry, became embroiled in a sex scandal. Just before flying to South Africa, les Bleus lost to China’s reserves.

And then there’s the coach. Raymond Domenech is the most despised man in France, ahead even of Nicolas Sarkozy. Partly it’s because of his maddening ironic smile. Partly it’s because he has had France playing tedious football since 2004. Partly it’s because he’s quarrelsome, even squabbling with So Foot magazine about deontology (only in France). “Le Domenech bashing” this week infected the normally taciturn Zinedine Zidane. The great called Domenech “a selector” but not “a coach”. “Zizou” bashed the players, too: “I haven’t seen that they’ve put their egos aside.” France Football magazine fears the World Cup will be “an awful, awful, awful remake of a calamitous Euro 2008”.

In some unhappy countries, only the sports minister still supports the national team. In France, even she has switched sides. Rama Yade has been complaining that the team was staying in too smart a hotel. It seemed a neat way of exploiting popular anger, until it was revealed that her own hotel was more expensive.

Yet, all these grumbles are a sideshow, as the French themselves should know. They spent the World Cups of 1998 and 2006 grumbling, until the team reached the final. Somehow the French have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Perhaps the grumbling reveals more about the nation than the team.

This side lacks the class of the 2006 vintage. But it does have players of Champions League quality in every position. The most fluent team of the first round almost never wins the World Cup. That advertiser might just end up handing out free TVs.

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