It’s strange to say, but I felt a powerful sense of relief after France’s defeat by Mexico. I’ve been rooting for France steadily since 2006, through the crash-and-burn of Euro 2008, through a qualifying campaign that constantly seemed like Waterloo (with Serbs instead the English), through the ire of Ireland, optimistic to a fault. Now all I can say is that I feel a weight off my shoulders: barring some miracle against South Africa, I don’t have to see Domenech again, don’t have to watch him twist, squeeze, in the and ruin a group of remarkably talented players any more, don’t have to watch figures like Thuram and Henry end their international careers in the worst possible way.
You do have to hand it to the French team: they never do anything half way. Wouldn’t a good, tough effort that ended in dignified defeat have been possible? Maybe 2-1, after a good game? Instead, when they burn out, they really burn: not red or orange, but blue.
In 2008, as Italy demolished France in the European Cup, there was a terrible moment when Thuram stood up, expecting to be substituted into the game. But Domenech gestured for him to sit down. He spent his last game for France watching his teammates fall apart on the field. I doubt he could have done anything, but I’m sure he would have rather been out there. Today, there was the same madness. I know Henry is an old man, hasn’t had a great season, etc., etc., but he should have been in the game. Against Uruguay, he brought some energy and even a little joy onto the pitch. Against Mexico, he was sitting there, cold as hell, in his hat, looking more miserable than I have ever seen him. Instead, Domenech put in Valbuena — nothing against the kid, but still. Gallas and Abidal were clearly both at the end of their ropes, but still it was tough to see them go out this way after solid careers for the French team. Maybe, as Jennifer Doyle has suggested, the French team just had to do its penance for the way it arrived at the Cup.
Kudos to the Mexican team, which pulled off a great game, and to the Mexican fans, the first to actually manage to create some real chants in the stadium, and who clearly left a patina of champagne all over the stadium. This is clearly turning out to be a Latin American tournament, and there is much more to come. I’m going to enjoy the freedom granted to fans of disastrous teams, and find solace elsewhere. There is plenty of solace to be had in the teams on their way into the round of 16, notably in the Argentinian team.
French football needs some kind of revolution. French society too. For somehow, as in 2002, there is a strange imbrication between the way the team played and the way France feels right now. “It’s power to the crazies!” a friend of mine exclaimed in 2008: Domenech and Sarkozy, running things in a way that is supposed to smell of panache and creativity but instead just reeks of decay.
The players on the French team have worked under increasingly impossible conditions. Already during the France-Mexico game, we now know, Anelka was in revolt, saying directly to Domenech what many have been shouting at their screens and newspapers for some time. Indeed, as a Venezuelan journalist wrote, it is difficult to find anyone more widely criticized and rejected than Raymond Domenech — except, of course, for politicians the world over. Anelka was punished, sent home, weakening the French team even further. How might the French players can continue what Anelka started, refusing to participate in a process that has become to painful to bear? Though I’m not sure the South African team will need the help, here’s one suggestion: maybe the French team could go on strike, and let South Africa score as many goals as they want, 10, 20, whatever, enough to go into the next round on goal differential. That could be a gesture of courage and solidarity worthy of the days of 1998.