Author Kieran Pender

Author Kieran Pender

Persecution of the precious

Kieran Pender August 24, 2010 Tags: Opinion 20 comments

The French Football Federation (FFF) last week announced its response to Les Bleus’ disastrous World Cup campaign, with Nicolas Anelka, Franck Ribéry, Jeremy Toulalan and Manchester United star Patrice Evra all receiving serious punishment. However, the sanctions handed down by the FFF raise a more intriguing question…

Are the players to blame for making a stand against a coach whom they had lost faith in?

After guiding France to an unexpected spot in the 2006 World Cup final, former French international Raymond Domenech failed dismally at the 2008 Euros, finishing last behind Romania in their group. Despite calls for 58-year-old Frenchman to step down or be sacked throughout the two years between the Euros and the 2010 World Cup, Domenech was handed the task of leading a talented French squad in South Africa.

While rumours had brewed that Domenech was unpopular with the players, the abysmal nature of the French World Cup campaign and the subsequent scandals left a nation shocked at the FFF’s failings. Letting Domenech, a man hated by his team, guide them through a World Cup seems nonsensical, and this was only reaffirmed by the antics of the squad in South Africa.

After Chelsea striker Anelka was sent home following a row with Domenech, the team revolted and refused to train, retreating to the sanctuary of the team bus. This eventually led to France exiting the World Cup after the group stage, suffering a humiliating defeat to hosts South Africa in the final game.

In response to the failure of the French squad at the 2010 World Cup, the FFF handed down match bans to four of the players involved in the so-called ‘mutiny’. Anelka has been banned from international football for an astonishing 18 matches, while United star Evra will miss five pending an appeal launched yesterday. Bayern Munich winger Ribéry, absent from the hearing, was given a three match ban, and Olympique Lyonnaise star Toulalan will miss a single game.

Unsurprisingly the decision has been greeted with disgust and derision from the players involved, and others involved in the world game have followed suit.

Before the sanctions were handed down, Evra started his pre-emptive defence, questioning the FFF’s hearing

“Why punish us more than others? It’s over now,” said the French captain.

“The penalty of not selecting the 23 players from the World Cup for the Norway friendly is consistent. That showed there were not five or six ‘ringleaders’ as had been written.”

But the FFF had to act, had to turn attention away from the failure of a federation that allowed a manager, who clearly no longer had support of the players, to lead the side to the World Cup.

“I am surprised, as I thought everyone wanted to turn the page after the World Cup. We must think about the future,” Evra adds.

However, the FFF clearly thought differently, and wanted to punish those who had apparently led a strike in protest against the decision to send Anelka home. While the comments attributed to the French striker that led to his exclusion were less than kind – “Go &@$% yourself, you son of a whore” – the real issue is that the FFF is trying to hide its woeful inadequacy.

Another to receive a ban, Ribéry, has tried to play down the decision to keep his international spot once the ban is over. The 27-year-old winger questioned the wisdom of not punishing the squad as a collective.

“I do not understand why some players were sentenced to a five-match ban while others have not been punished. All these players participated in what happened at the World Cup,” said Ribéry last week.

Ribéry has a valid point, the judgment to sentence only some players, predominantly those in leadership positions among the team, is intriguing. Ultimately, didn’t those players, as the leaders of the team, have the right to question manager’s authority they no longer believed in? After Domenech made a decision, which they felt left the team in an untenable position.

Such an occurrence is common-place in Premier League sides when managers get the boot. Often the old heads of the team will have questioned his position at the club. The FFF’s decision, therefore, can be seen as trying to lay the blame for a poor World Cup on those who do not deserve it – ultimately using Anelka, Evra and co as scapegoats.

Not everyone agrees with such a view though, and French legend Lillian Thuram wasn’t supportive of United’s beloved defender Evra. One of the most successful figures in French football, Thuram belittled Evra.

“I demanded that the players be harshly punished and that Evra never returns to the France squad. When you are captain of the France team, you must have a responsibility to the jersey and the people,” said the 142-cap legend.

“When the players shut themselves in the bus…that showed that the coach was no longer respected.”

However, if the coach was no longer respected, is it not the captain’s job to make this known? While a safer option was to grin and bear it until the end of the tournament, Evra made a stance and demonstrated to the world how flawed the FFF’s decision making is.

Unsurprisingly there are many who are ready to back Evra and his role at the World Cup. Newly signed Tottenham Hotspur defender William Gallas was quick to redirect the finger of blame.

“If it was a fiasco, then there are reasons for it,” the former Arsenal captain told the Daily Telegraph.

“And for me there is no need to draw a veil over why: they emanated from the coach. The real problem is the coach. Ok I wasn’t good, we weren’t good. But the coach wasn’t up to scratch either.”

“Anelka’s incident was a case of him being fed up for a few weeks prior to that. Domenech hammered into us time and again: ‘Put your egos to one side’. But I believe that he forgot to do that himself.”

While Gallas was already disenfranchised with Domenech after a disputing the side’s captaincy he makes a valid point.

Even new French manager Laurent Blanc isn’t positive about the punishments.

“I thought the collective punishment [the Norway friendly] was both necessary and sufficient…Our only concern is to establish the best possible squad for those fixtures in early September against the Belarus and Bosnia-Herzegovina,” said the former United defender.

Given the man charged with turning around the fortunes of French football disagrees with the punishment, one must wonder why the FFF felt compelled to act and not move on.

Finally, the man at the centre of the controversy, Anelka, sums up the farce.

“For me, this whole thing with the commission is an aberration, a masquerade to make sure they don’t lose face,” said the Chelsea striker.

“They have punished a void, as Nicolas Anelka never existed in this pitiful and colourful affair. They are real clowns, these people … I am doubled up with laughter.” While the laughter claim may sound arrogant, his argument is striking and direct, much like the Frenchman’s playing style.

While the decision to exclude the players from France’s recent friendly is widely seen as justifiable, the bans handed down by the FFF recently are not. Instead, it is a crude attempt to hide the organisational failures at the top level of French football.

There is however one benefit the punishment brings United fans; Patrice Evra won’t have to attend any pesky international games in the next few months!

Unlikely heroes – Patty, Fletch and Sheasy

Kieran Pender November 27, 2009 Tags: , , Opinion 4 comments

Three players: Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher and John O’Shea. Great players today but each has suffered at Manchester United. Evra, taken off at half-time on début, did not have the most auspicious start. It was not uncommon to hear United fans dub Fletcher “Fergie’s son,” based on the notion that the Scot played only because of the land of his birth. And O’Shea…well, he’s John O’Shea.

But the effort put into their respective careers has seen each transformed from flops to favourites. So much so that Patty, Fletch and Sheasy can lead United to glory, confident in their status as fans’ favourites.

Patrice Latyr Evra, born 15th of May 1981, started his football career at a small French club, CO Les Ulis. At 16, accepted into the academy, the Dakar-born defender joined Paris Saint-Germain before moving to Italian club Marsala for his first professional contract. After a successful start to his career, including time at Monza in Serie B and then Nice, Evra signed for AS Monaco, following a switch from left-wing to left-back.

Four years later and Evra signed for United, with Liverpool, Arsenal and Inter Milan reportedly interested. It was the start of Evra’s rise to the pinacle of world football.

Evra’s journey wasn’t smooth sailing though. Substituted at half-time on début in a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City, many felt incumbent full-back Gabriel Heinze had little concern in keeping Evra at bay.

Nevertheless, the Frenchman pushed through his difficulties and soon became an important part of the team. He scored his first Premier League goal against Everton in 2006. By 2008, Evra was an essential part of United’s defence.

Over the years Evra has grown on United fans due to his unwavering loyalty to the club and his effusive personality – Evra one part of a comedy trio with Ji-Sung Park and Carlos Tevez. Evra’s altercation with Chelsea ground staff, together with outstanding performances on the pitch, probably didn’t hurt either.

While fans could never accuse Evra of being ‘Fergie’s Son’ that was the charge laid at Fletcher’s door early in his career. Presumably because that was the only explanation for his place in the team? But nine years on, and thousands of disrespectful comments later, Darren Fletcher is now seen as a midfielder in the world-class bracket. United’s world-class midfielder.

But Fletcher has always divided opinion. Some supporters viewed the Dalkeith-born midfielder as little more than decent backup. Others pushed the merits of local talent and not an import.

Fletcher began his career as a much-vaunted creative midfielder. Club insiders had earmarked the Scot for Beckham’s right-wing slot.

“Ferguson is convinced that in teenage prodigy Darren Fletcher, he has a youngster who will make a sensational impact when he breaks into the first-team. The 16-year-old Scot, already rated Beckham’s understudy, is so integral to Ferguson’s future plans that the manager took the lad into his own home to convince him to move to Old Trafford,” was ESPN’s analysis in 2000.

But Fletcher’s first few seasons at Old Trafford, hampered by serious injury, slowed the player’s development into the central midfielder Ferguson relies upon today. Fletcher did not convince everybody – famously the Scot was singled out by Roy Keane for public criticism.

“I can’t understand why people in Scotland rave about Darren Fletcher,” the Irishman reportedly said.

Fletcher’s progress stalled, with Ferguson’s preferred midfield of Cristian Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs blocking his path to a regular game. The arrival of Owen Hargreaves and Anderson made Fletcher’s departure seem all but inevitable. There were even rumors that Fletcher considered leave the club.

In many ways 2009 was a watershed in Fletcher’s career. The Scot fought his way back into the first team picture, with a string of stellar performances. More to the point, Ferguson illustrated Fletcher’s increasing importance to the team by leaving the midfielder out of Carling and FA Cup games.

The Scot’s red card against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final may have devastated Fletcher personally but United’s performance in the final highlighted only served to highlight his newfound importance to the team.

But perhaps the highest praise came from former-Liverpool legend Graeme Souness.

“I believe he will be, arguably, United’s most important player for the next seven years,” claimed the 54-cap Scot.

Fletcher, O'Shea, Evra

It has been a different path for John O’Shea to first team success. Possibly United’s most versatile player, O’Shea has been through the ups and downs of playing for the world’s greatest club since joined at 17. Making his début in 1999, after loan spells at Bournemouth and Belgian side Royal Antwerp, O’Shea benefited from his versatility to force his way into the first team squad.

But the Irishman’s biggest stroke of luck came in 2004 when Rio Ferdinand, suspended for missing a mandatory drugs test, handed O’Shea a home in central defence. O’Shea helped United triumph in that season’s FA Cup Final.

However, poor form the following year led to speculation that O’Shea would leave the club, linked as he was with a move to Newcastle United and Liverpool. Injuries to Gary Neville in 2006 offered the defender further opportunities in the first team but he failed to impress and was another player condemned by Roy Keane in the now infamous MUTV outburst.

But just as O’Shea’s United future looked dire, the Waterford-born player managed to win his way into supporters’ hearts with a solid performance against Tottenham Hotspur – in goal – following Edwin van der Sar’s injury. Then O’Shea scored an added-time winner against Liverpool at Anfield to cement his status. During the 2008 season, O’Shea even played as an emergency striker giving the Irishman the unique distinction of having played in every position for the team.

Last season O’Shea was a key player for United, scoring against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final first leg. He finished the final as one of United’s better players.

O’Shea’s status as first choice right-back has continued, even captaining the side against Birmingham City this term. At Stoke City O’Shea played – and scored in – his 350th appearance for the club. A remarkable achievement for the man so few had believed in.

“I could play John anywhere. He has great passing awareness, two good feet, he is quick, and he is balanced. He’s athletic, big and gets around well,” is Sir Alex Ferguson’s summary of the player’s newfound importance to the team.

While some still criticise O’Shea for being mediocre, he is now a vital part of the United squad. This is unlikely to change, after all how many players can Sir Alex trust in almost any position?

Three different players: Evra, Fletcher and O’Shea. Each has been subject to criticism from fans. Each has suffered on the road to stardom. But now United can boast the world’s finest left back, a world-class midfielder and John O’Shea … well he’s pretty awesome too.