France’s World Cup surrender takes an ugly turn


Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — Before the World Cup started, you could have gotten good odds that the French would go home as champions.

On Sunday, one of Europe’s top bookmakers starting taking bets the French would go home before their final match.

The bizarre turn of events, which has been brewing for years, finally bubbled over Sunday at the team’s training camp just east of Cape Town with a series of occurrences that started with a conversation between captain Patrice Evra and Coach Raymond Domenech and ended with the humiliated Domenech reading a statement to the media condemning the French federation’s decision to kick forward Nicolas Anelka off the team a day earlier.

In between, fitness coach Robert Duverne stormed out of camp, team director Jean-Louis Valentin angrily announced his resignation and the entire team, after filing off the bus for practice, filed back in again without so much as kicking a ball.

By the end of the day, even French President Nicolas Sarkozy had weighed in, with Roselyne Bachelot, his sports minister, saying “the indignation of the French is great.”

A World Cup finalist four years ago and a World Cup champion in 1998, France is winless, goal-less and virtually hopeless heading into Tuesday’s group-play finale against South Africa. And as spectacular as Sunday’s mutiny was, it was just the latest in a series of incidents that have conspired to make France, the No. 9 team in the world in the latest FIFA rankings, one of the worst in the World Cup.

“We’re in another world here,” Christian Teinturier, vice president of the French soccer federation, told reporters Sunday. “French football is in a catastrophic situation.”

The roots of that reach back at least as far as the 2008 European Championship, where France went out in the first round without winning a game. As French fans waited angrily for an explanation for the performance, Domenech, who guided the team to the 2006 World Cup final, stepped before the cameras and proposed to this girlfriend instead.

The French didn’t even qualify for last summer’s Confederations Cup — a tournament it has won twice in the last decade — and may not have made it to the World Cup either if not for Thierry Henry’s hand-ball that led to the game-winning goal in their playoff with Ireland.

Then, less than two months before the World Cup, the team was embroiled in more controversy when star players Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou were alleged to have paid a 17-year-old girl for sex.

Add to that a World Cup warmup campaign that included a tie with Tunisia and a loss to China, and Domenech’s decision to bench standout striker Florent Malouda for the tournament opener, and the team’s implosion Sunday, while not expected, was hardly surprising.

It all started after Domenech and Evra had a private chat on the bus shortly after the team arrived at its training facility. After exiting the bus, Evra approached Duverne, who was preparing the field for the workout, and the two became engaged in a heated discussion.

Domenech tried to intervene, but Duverne angrily stalked off, throwing his World Cup credential to the ground. Moments later the players returned to the bus, drawing the curtains so as not to be seen by about 200 fans who had come to watch the practice.

But wait, there’s more.

Next it was Valentin who stormed off, shouting that he was “ashamed” of his players and announcing his resignation before driving away.

“It’s a scandal for the French, for the young people here. It’s a scandal for the federation and the French team,” the Associated Press quoted Valentin as saying. “They don’t want to train. It’s unacceptable. As for me, it’s over. I’m leaving the federation. I’m sickened and disgusted.”

That left the lame-duck Domenech, who came here knowing he was out of a job when the tournament ended, standing almost alone outside the team bus reading a statement from the players in which they said they weren’t training to protest the French soccer federation’s decision to send Anelka home after the player blistered the coach in an obscene tirade following France’s loss to Mexico last week.

In response the French federation issued its own statement criticizing the “the unacceptable behavior of the players representing our country.”

Teinturier, who called for Domenech’s ouster two years ago, admitted he was flustered by the whole episode.

“I confess that I understand nothing,” he told reporters.