Down on Les Bleus: The Word from Paris

By | June 10, 2010

On the eve of the World Cup, after four years of anticipation and hope, tactics and maneuvering and hype, interestingly, it is possible to sum up the mood of the French capital on the state of the national team in a word: pessimism.

Pessimism abounds, and it is not unjustified. Les Bleus, as the team is affectionately known here, looked disorganized in the qualifying matches and even suffered a painful 1-0 loss to lowly China. (A recent article in the sports journal L’Equipe that summarized these developments was titled “De l’optimisme a la crainte.”)

Many of the most popular players on the team, like Henry, are past their prime. There is not much difference between this squad and the group that played so poorly in an opening round exit at the EuroCup 2008. No one knows where the goals will come from, and the 4-3-3 formation that coach Raymond Domenech implemented to spark the offense has been trouble from the start.

The players reportedly don’t get along. When asked about team relations, midfielder Jeremy Toulalan issued the usual self-incriminating line: “on n’est pas obligés d’être les meilleurs amis du monde. Si on arrive à bien jouer ensemble, il n’y aura pas de soucis.” And then, in the same Wednesday press conference, Toulalan hedged his bets on that second sentence, cautioning that a loss to Uruguay would not necessarily derail the team’s Cup hopes. One struggles to believe him.

Public opinion on the team is mistrustful. Widespread calls for Domenech’s ouster date back years. The brilliant midfielder Franck Ribery, it is said, does not score enough; forward Nicolas Anelka is thought to spend too much of his time playing defense; none of the goalkeepers inspire confidence. As a matter of fact, who are the goalkeepers?

Tellingly, in a recent poll, 18 percent of French fans said that they would put their money on unknown Uruguay in the opening match. (Which, thanks to a law that went into effect June 8, fans can now legally do online.)

The French do discontent well, and their approach to this team seems to be a studied indifference. If you walk around Paris, you’ll see almost no banners, posters, paintings, placards, or signs supporting the national team–nothing like the inspiring billboards Laura Wagner has seen in Haiti. Almost no one in the many pick-up soccer games that go on daily around the city wears a French jersey. Not surprisingly, the national soccer Federation is said to be desperately, and unsuccessfully, trying to reverse the growing unpopularity of this team. In a city and a country that nearly lost its mind in the celebration of the 1998 World Cup victory, the silence here is striking.

Pessimism is, of course, a French trademark, regardless of the quality of the national team. Fans were famously down on the 2006 World Cup squad, that is, until the team made a spectacular run to the finals. And in truth, this is a team full of world stars that should do fairly well.

But, like every good pessimist, the French renew their disgruntlement each year, each year thinking that this time the team really will be an embarrassment. This is the state of affairs on the eve of the Cup.

As the two African immigrants who sold me a miniature model of the Eiffel Tower told me, “We would like to have confidence in the team this year, but it’s hard to be a fan these days. Very hard.”

Their money, they said grinning, was on Spain.

France plays Uruguay Friday at 8:30 pm, South Africa time.

Category: Fans France Henry Soccer Politics World Cup

About John Harpham

John graduated from Duke in May 2010, with an undergraduate degree in political theory and French. This summer, before applying to Ph.D. programs in political theory, he is stationed in Paris, where he is writing about the culture of French soccer on a Benenson grant from Duke. Although he has never been any good at it, John is a life-long fan of soccer. And although he will never be as chic, John is also a life-long fan of Prof. Dubois.

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