In the quaint Luxembourg stadium on Friday, in front of a hopeful banner that read “Lux 4, Fra 0,” the pitch welcomed Patrice Evra and Franck Ribéry back from their period of post-World Cup exile. The game itself was, to put it politely, not the most thrilling of match-ups — France is lucky to be in European Cup qualifying group with some of Europe’s cutest nations, Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands — but the mild victory by France further solidified it’s march towards the 2012 European Cup, and more importantly registered as the end of one thing and, hopefully, the beginning of another.
The events that took place 9 months ago, when the French team played badly and went on strike against it’s coach seem far away now, for the French team under Laurent Blanc is now thriving, at ease on the pitch, a mix of well-established and newer players. Evra and Ribéry, in the tradition of Zidane’s post-headbutt statements, at once apologized and didn’t quite, admitting they had made mistakes but also criticizing (rightly, I think), the way the press approached the entire debacle. Ribéry’s statement was intense and frank, insisting that the press had hurt many people, personally, through it’s treatment of the players. He had a tough 2010, for sure: a convert to Islam, married to an Algerian woman, he was caught up in a prostitution scandal even before the World Cup debacle. But I thought he spoke with dignity, and it’s exciting to think that this player — who at times (particularly during the 2006 World Cup), has truly lit up the pitch in his playing for France.
Evra’s return took place after a one-on-one conversation with Blanc, during which I dearly wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Evra explained that the two had a good discussion, and added that Blanc had said things that “would remain between us.” (Evra seems to have learned something of diplomatic skills from his father, a Guinean diplomat). What I think and hope that means is that Blanc probably admitted that he understood some of what Evra did, and promised (as he has clearly demonstrated) that his reign represents a break with the oddball approach of Domenech. It’s the right move, but in fact a courageous one, for there are still those who are furious with Evra and continue to hammer away at the idea that the players were selfish, overpaid, and too rebellious and deserve permanent exile from the French team. A poll taken before the game apparently registered 70% of French people opposing the return of the two players. Blanc is more forgiving, and his approach seems to be quietly pragmatic: it would indeed be foolish for a national team to pass up the service of the likes of Evra, who continues to show himself essential and effective at Manchester United this season. Perhaps, too, he actually understands that what happened in South Africa was a systemic failure rather than the fault of a few players.
This return inevitably brings up the question of whether Nicholas Anelka, whose insults against the French manager were at the center of the whole World Cup fiasco, could return. In November Laurent Blanc announced he had no objections to such a return. It’s not clear whether Anelka would want to come back, but if he wants to play on the international stage again, his only choice will be France. (Anelka’s parents are from Martinique). Maybe a head-to-head conversation between Blanc and Anelka would do the trick, as it did with Evra?
Other French-born players, of course, have of late made clear that they have no intention or interest in playing for the French team, most stridently Tottenham Hotspur player Benoit Assou-Ekotto, who has played for Cameroon — where his parents are from — and explained that he had no feeling at all for the French team. Such choices — facilitated by the new FIFA rules which, at the urging of the Algerian Football Federation, made it possible for players to switch from playing for one national team to another once during their career — will impact and reshape French and African football in the coming years.
Yet Blanc’s approach also suggests that the French team, for all it’s struggles in the previous years, will also remain — at least potentially — a site through which an alternative vision of France will be articulated, as it long has been. One can’t help thinking that Sarkozy could — and most certainly won’t — take a cue from Blanc, whose time as manager marks a refreshing shift from the madness and corruption of the previous years. But, for now at least, the football pitch seems like it will remain a relatively isolated site of sanity in the midst of a distressing and at times mystifying social and political impasse. Still, better to find solace in football than nowhere at all.