Prior to the World Cup’s start French coach Raymond Domenech awarded Patrice Evra the national team captaincy. The honour came with Thierry Henry’s fading star; Manchester United’s left-back replacing Les Bleus’ legend at the national side’s helm. With the team and coach at war, Evra may prefer the relative quiet of defensive duties.
How quickly the dream turns to dust.
French in-fighting, hardly new, began before the tournament’s start with William Gallas objecting to Evra’s premature promotion. The Arsenal defender, now the team’s senior player, instilled a tournament-long media boycott in protest at the apparent insult by Domenech.
More followed disquiet followed, with Chelsea winger Florent Malouda exchanging heated – reportedly bordering on violent – words with Domenech before being consigned to the bench for Les Bleus’ first match again Uruguay match.
Malouda’s anger just another expression of long-held antipathy for Domenech’s regime both inside the squad and among the wider public. Aside from alienating a series of senior players, the erratic coach is widely considered too studious, too closely wedded to the Fédération Française de Football (FFF) after years with both the Under-21s and national team.
Worse followed with Domenech’s team performing more akin to strangers than former world champions against Uruguay a week last Saturday.
Then, with France held scoreless at half-time against Mexico on Thursday night Nicolas Anelka, dubbed Le Sulk for good reason, let the frustration boil-over and reportedly called Domenech “the son of a whore” as egos within the camp reached breaking point.
The French lost, with new United recruit Javier Hernandéz scoring a stunning opener as Javier Aguirre’s side recorded a well-deserved 2-0 win in Group A.
Anelka’s confrontation had reached the morning papers as Friday’s news broke, the FFF sent the Chelsea striker home after Le Sulk refused to apologise when asked to by Fédération president Jean-Pierre Escalettes.
Domenech supported the FFF, much to his players’ disgust.
“Nobody can behave in such a way in the dressing room or elsewhere and high-level sportsmen and women have to lead by example through football,” said 58-year-old coach.
By Sunday little short of total war had been declared at Knysna, the French base for the tournament, as Evra confronted fitness coach Robert Duverne with both the accusation of leaking the Anelka tirade to the press and news of an impending players’ strike.
Evra’s accusation that a “traitor” – later denied as Duverne by the left-back – within the camp deliberately contravened the unwritten law of the dressing room by revealing the inner-most secrets of squad conversations.
Within hours the entire squad, now refusing to train, effectively forced Domenech to issue a demand on the players’ behalf for Anelka’s immediate return.
“The players are unanimously against the FFF’s decision to expel Nicolas Anelka,” said the statement.
The row, which has ended Anelka’s international career, will also bring the curtain down on Domenech’s era in shame, possibly as early as Tuesday when France play hosts South Africa in Bloemfontain. The coach is being replaced by former United defender Laurent Blanc after the World Cup ends.
“The players don’t want to train, it’s a scandal,” the FFF’s team director and FFF managing director Jean-Louis Valentin said, resigning in disgust at Sunday’s strike.
“It’s a scandal for French people, for the youngsters who came here to watch them train. I’m resigning, I’m leaving the Federation. I have nothing more to do here. I’m going back to Paris.”
When the French blow-up it goes nuclear.
But Evra’s part runs further than his role as the not wholly popular new captain, even aside from the training ground confrontation with Duverne. Although not the ring-leader in total mutiny, Evra supported leading players – thought to be stars “past their prime,” including deposed captain Thierry Henry, the aforementioned Gallas and Malouda.
“A rebellion? No, a caprice. A strike? No, cowardliness. Don’t deceive yourself. The republican solidarity that our players showed the world yesterday is an illusion,” ran the lead editorial in French sports newspaper L’Equipe.
“Evra has once and for all shown that he has muddled up the role of captain with that of a gang leader.”
Domenech today held a press conference without his captain Evra, with suggestions now circulating that the United left-back will be stripped of both the captaincy and his place in Les Bleus’ side.
It is perhaps then with some irony that Evra’s leadership has now brought new unity to a camp riven with divisions over personnel, tactics and the coach’s role – even if that solidarity is based on a mutual hatred of the coach and federation.
Training today behind closed-doors, the French squad now faces a make-or-break fixture against the hosts tomorrow, with Uruguay and Mexico requiring only a draw to end France’s run in the tournament.
Most French fans it seems will be supporting the Africans.