French fans have always had high hopes for their football team due to their history of success within the sport. The French influence on the game began with Jules Rimet, for whom the World Cup trophy is named. Rimet was the first president of the Fédération Française de Footbal (FFF) and the 3rd President of FIFA. Following World War I, he established the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.1 France was one of the teams involved in this tournament, and although the French did not win, their involvement as a strong contender in the world of football had begun. They won their first tournament in 1984 (Euros) and won the World Cup that they hosted in 1998.2 This victory gave the nation a strong sense of pride and hope for the future. France returned to the World Cup final in 2006, but lost to Italy. Since the French team has experienced some difficulties internationally. It struggled most notably in the 2010 World Cup where not only did it fail to make it out of the group stage, but it also had a remarkably public team meltdown. Within this blog we will examine exactly what went wrong and the overall dynamics of a team within the locker room that could lead to this kind of breakdown.
Despite exceeding expectations in the tournament, the 2006 World Cup ended on a sour note for France after losing a penalty shootout 5-3 to Italy in the semi-finals. A major contributor to this loss was the ejection of France’s star player, Zinedine Zidane, who was shown a red card after delivering a head-butt to Italy’s Marco Materazzi.
This was a shocking event which left many fans stunned, though others felt Materazzi had somehow wronged Zidane to warrant this action. Regardless, this ejection significantly changed the course of the game and ultimately led to France’s loss. French coach Raymond Domenech had several comments revealing frustration about the Zidane incident and France’s “unjust” loss:
“Materazzi is the man of the match, not Pirlo… Something must have happened but I don’t know what. I don’t think he [Zidane] decided out of the blue to head-butt him [Materazzi], that he wanted to leave the pitch, something must have happened…I can’t say I’m happy just to be a finalist… I am deeply disappointed. We deserved the title based over the whole match.”3
Despite this incident –or perhaps because of it— the match left the French team and fans yearning for more. Success in 2010 would prove to be a difficult task however, because Zidane had retired from international play following this World Cup and the French team truly relied on his magnificent ability. To truly have a chance the French team needed a replacement, and this was supposed to come in the form of Yoann Gourcuff
Yoann Gourcuff was born July 11, 1986 in Ploemeur, France.4 He started playing soccer in Lorient Academy at the age of 6, but did not make his professional debut until 2003 with Rennes. His ability impressed AC Milan who then signed him in 2006. Unfortunately, he was unable to get much playing time with AC Milan and was thus loaned out to Bordeaux in 2008. Gourcuff excelled with Bordeaux, directly aiding in 30 goals in his first season and ultimately earning the title of Ligue 1 player of the year. The same year, he helped the team to the French Ligue Championship and Coupe de la Ligue Championship.5,6 This success encouraged Bordeaux to buy him the next season and he continued to shine. This domestic success also gained the attention of the French National Team, for whom he made his first appearance in 2008.
The media and fellow players also recognized his talent and hailed him “Le Successeur,” or the new Zidane.7 He was the answer to the French prayers, someone to lead the team to success after the great one had left. The comparisons to Zidane began with his amazing ability, but extended much further than that. His size, position, style, of unique mastery of the ball and intricate runs, and even schooling were all the same as Zidane. When playing alongside Gourcuff, Franck Ribery stated “ [Gourcuff gave him] the same sensations that I had when I played in the team with Zidane.”8 The only true distinction Gourcuff had from Zidane, and many other famous footballers, was that Gourcuff grew up in an upper-class region of France, thus defying the belief that football was a poor man’s game. Though Gourcuff’s success was yet to be proven, it was the belief of many that the World Cup 2010 would be his stage.
Despite France’s extremely poor performance in Euro 2008 in which France came in last in the group, no one expected them to have extreme difficulty qualifying for the World Cup.9 They still had Raymond Domenech as their coach, the man who had lead them to the 2006 World Cup Final. The French Football Federation (FFF) however, had taken note of Domenech’s weaknesses such as poor communication and uninspiring play which had earned the disapproval of many fans and former players.9
For 2010 World Cup Qualifications, France had been placed into a group with Austria, Faroe Islands, Lithuania, Romania and Serbia, making it the favorite to win the group. Despite assurances that things would change, the qualifying campaign did not start well; France lost to Austria 3-1.10 France then beat Serbia and tied Romania, merely 4 points out of 9 against less than stellar opponents. This poor start put them at a disadvantage throughout the rest of qualifying, as they had to play catch up to Serbia and Lithuania who were sitting on 6 points. Fortunately for France, they won their next 3 matches and Lithuania had lost 3 of 4. This meant that only the undefeated Serbia was left to catch.
Then the unthinkable happened, France tied Romania due to an own goal in a game at home that they had been dominating.11 This caused instant reaction from both fans and players alike. Fans criticized issues such as player selection12 and players, like Patrice Evra, defended the team saying “People who say we did not play well don’t know anything about football, if we play like that against Serbia, why should we not bring the points back?”11 The truth is however, that this tie left the team at a disadvantage with a crucial match coming up against Serbia. France had 14 points after 7 games, and Serbia had 18. Even with this added urgency against Serbia, France did not play to its fullest, and tied 1-1 following a Hugo Lloris red card in the 9th minute leading to a converted penalty.13 While this was not Lloris’s fault, it sent France down a path from which they could not recover. This match had, for the most part, ensured France of second place within the group, as they had 15 points, Serbia had 19 points, with a higher goal differential, and the next closest team, Austria, had 11. So despite France’s victories in the next two games, they were still in second place and uncertain of their World Cup fate. These standings meant they had to partake in the play-off.
By this point criticisms for Domenech were increasing, as this incredibly strong team had barely scraped through the qualifying stage with several unconvincing wins to make it to the play-off. They had also had the difficult match-up against the Republic of Ireland to make it through, so nothing was a given. The first game was played in Ireland, a game dominated by Ireland, but ultimately won by France, after Nikolas Anelka’s 72nd minute goal. During their sparing times of dominance France looked very strong, but many believed that this victory was the result of luck rather than skill.14 This then set up the second game in France. As the match began, Ireland picked up right where they left off, dominating the game and having majority of the chances. They even managed to score, as Robbie Keane tied up the aggregate at the 33-minute mark. And while the game evened out somewhat over the next 57 minutes, Ireland still had the better chances. The French fans relentlessly booed their own team.15 Then in extra-time, the French were bailed out by the referee. In the 103rd minute, Thierry Henry controlled the ball with his hand and put a cross into William Gallas who scored. There was immediate reaction from the Irish players, but the ref did not budge and the goal stood. This goal ended up being the deciding factor of the game and France advanced on a 2-1 aggregate. It is important to note that if France had not scored, the game would have gone to penalties. France still may have won in penalties, but they were ultimately able to advance thanks to an inexcusably bad call by the referee.
Following this match, there were significant questions asked of FIFA– did Henry cheat? Should additional steps be taken to avoid events such as this? Many people compared this event to Diego Maradonna’s “Hand of God.” There were so many accusations of cheating that Henry even considered retiring from the sport. However, the only steps FIFA took were to open a disciplinary case against Henry, who had admitted to the Irish players that he had used his hand to control the ball, and although it was unintentional, he apologized that this event had ever occurred. 16, 17 This means that France would go through, and additional technology would not be used. This choice not to use additional technology lead to further issues during the World Cup, which you can read about here. Furthermore, Henry ended up not having any action taken against him by FIFA.18
So despite the many stumbles, and through the help of a shamefully missed call, France qualified for the 2010 World Cup. However, things were not looking good as the dislike for Domenech continued to grow, both from the fans and the players themselves.19 However, despite these troubles, some still believed that due to the on-paper talent of the team, they still stood a chance of doing well in the tournament. This time around though, the expectations were not nearly as high. These expectations were lowered even further when the groups were drawn and France was part of a tough Group A alongside host country South Africa, Uruguay and Mexico.
In the first match, France drew Uruguay 0-0 in an underwhelming performance, which called into question what exactly was going wrong with the French team. The easy answer was to blame the new Zidane, Gourcuff. He was clearly not playing up to his potential and there were significant rumors suggesting that he was being isolated during the game by various teammates, namely Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery.20 There were additional claims that he was not getting along with his teammates off the pitch either.21, 22 This was believed to be the result of a combination his quiet demeanor and affluent background and childhood. There were even some crazy claims that Ribery’s wife secretly admired Gourcuff, which made Ribery jealous and angry toward his teammate.23 However, this separation from teammates was nothing new for Gourcuff. At AC Milan he had run into some similar issues where it was believed “he was unable to express himself well.”6 Whatever the issue, Gourcuff was not playing well and was left out of France’s next match against Mexico.
However, this roster change did not affect much as France lost 2-0 to Mexico. There was also a major falling out between Domenech and Anelka, which changed the course of the tournament for France. During halftime of the Mexico match, at which point the score stood at 0-0, Domenech had been criticizing or instructing Anelka on what was wrong with his play.24, 25 According to one source, Anelka responded by stating, “f*** off, look after your sh**** team alone.”24 Another source reported him to have said “f** off, dirty son of a whore.”25 Anelka then continued his exuberant criticism of the coach throughout halftime, which ultimately resulted in a substitution at the beginning of the second half. Following this substitution, Mexico scored twice and France lost. Anelka was dismissed from the team two days later via the decision of the FFF and was subject to a disciplinary hearing.25 The other players were unhappy with this and the next day the team, led by captain Patrice Evra, refused to train.26 In the explanation for the boycott Evra stated through a letter to the coach that “All the players without exception want to declare their opposition to the decision taken by the FFF to exclude Nicolas Anelka from the squad… The FFF has at no time tried to protect the squad. It has made a decision [to send Anelka home] without consulting all the players, on the basis of the facts reported by the press.”26 In response the FFF claimed that they had spoken to Anelka and additional players, and that the players themselves were acting in an improper manner.26 As an additional step the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, sent down the sports minister to intervene.27 Overall this crisis was the most significant demonstration of Domenech’s inability to control the team, and move them towards the proper goal of succeeding in the World Cup. Additionally, it revealed the divide between the federation and players representing them, a difference between politics and action. This controversy ultimately ended up in the decision to relieve Evra of his captaincy and for Domenech to leave his position following the tournament.
However, despite this extraordinary series of events, the French team still had one more match to play against South Africa and it still had the potential to progress to the next round in the tournament. As had become the norm however, France failed to perform, allowing goals in the 20th and 37th minute to put them down 2-0 by the half. To add to his personal disappointing World Cup performance, Gourcuff received a red card in the 25th minute.28
In the second half, the team started to look like the French team many expected, but they were only able to achieve one goal, and thus lost the match 2-1.27 While it wasn’t the worst way the team could have ended its disastrous World Cup, it was far from the best, leaving the team questioning its identity and future expectations. In a final demonstration of Domenech’s frustration, he refused to shake the hand of South African coach, Carlos Alberto Parreria, a truly disgraceful act.29
The immediate action following this exit was instant criticism of Domenech, the FFF and the players. Some of the media responses can be found here.29 However, while Domenech and the FFF only had to answer to the media, the players also had to answer to the FFF. Anelka, Evra, Ribery, Jeremy Toulalan and Eric Abidal all were submitted to disciplinary hearings for their involvement in the events that seemed to have led to this horrific World Cup performance. Following these preceedings, several punishments were handed out. Anelka received an 18-match ban, Evra received a 5-match ban, Ribery received a 3-match ban, and Toulalan received a 1-match ban, while Abidal was not punished for his actions.30 These bans somewhat showed the FFF’s refusal to accept the blame for the events that occurred in South Africa; the organization should have recognized some responsibility for their inability to remove the incompetent and disrespected coach that had sparked these events. However, following the 2010 World Cup, they did choose a new head coach in Laurent Blanc, who was ultimately replaced by Didier Deschamps in 2012.31
Since the World Cup the French National Team has still run into some issues with their performances. While the team did make it out of the group stages of the Euros in 2012, they came in second within the group with a notable loss to Sweden.32 They then lost in the next round to Spain. This loss to Spain was not a bad, as Spain was the defending champion of both the Euros and 2010 World Cup, and went on to win the tournament. However as a result of this tournament, several players including Sami Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jeremy Menez, and Yann M’Vila, were all subject to disciplinary hearings which suggested that relations between the FFF and players are not fully healed.33
In the most recent World Cup Qualifying, France again failed to be at the top of their group. Topping the group in these qualifications would be more difficult than it had been for the 2010 qualifications considering they had the misfortune of being in a group with Spain. In the play-off though they struggled against Ukraine, and lost the first leg 2-0 away. France did manage to come back and win the second leg 3-0 at home to secure a place in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the struggles were a worrying sign with 2010 still so fresh in mind. The good news is that there was not as much disapproval of Deschamps, with concern to fans or players. This improved relationship between the coach and players allowed Deschamps more freedom and more ability to strengthen the team as they moved forward. France had a much better showing in the 2014 World Cup and emerged on the top of their group after decisively beating Honduras (3-0) and Switzerland (5-2). The match against Ecuador resulted in a 0-0 tie, but France still advanced out of the group stages. Their relatively more successful 2014 World Cup campaign was brought to a halt after a 1-0 loss in the quarterfinals to Germany, the ultimate 2014 champions.34
Overall, I feel France’s meltdown revealed a significant amount about how the dynamics of the locker room can influence the performance of a team, regardless of the amount of talent involved. This French team was a product of the golden age of French Soccer, minus the likes of Zidane and Lilian Thuram, yet despite this great talent and great expectations, they allowed factors, such as the inability to follow a standard locker room hierarchy, or social background, to detract from their playing. In order to succeed a team needs to be greater than the sum of their parts, but this French team was much, much less.
The social hierarchy within the locker room is crucial, because if there is no clearly defined leadership, be it the coach, captain or star player, the roles of everyone else are lost within the team. They have no definition, they have no soul. Domenech states this as the main reason the team crashed and burned, saying “[Anelka’s rant] broke a barrier of positions, ages, hierarchy…. Anelka had killed the squad.”24 This process happens time and time again, regardless of level, such as Andre Villas-Boas’s failure at Chelsea. But if one is able to avoid this conflict, they can do great things, even beyond what they expected, such as Senegal’s World cup victory against France in 2002.
Secondly, we as spectators do not understand all of the little aspects which can influence the behaviors of the players within the locker room, we always assume its just football. But as demonstrated by Gourcuff, something as insignificant as childhood social standing can be the mechanism, which leads to ostracization from teammates. His failure to fit in during the World Cup was obvious with his poor performance, and he really has not been able to return to the team since. But his success with Bordeaux, and now somewhat with Lyon, demonstrates the true importance of chemistry, both on a team and individual level.
Lastly, I wanted to discuss the effect the media has on the types of scenarios. Throughout this entire process the media played a significant role in not only starting conflict, such as providing added pressure on Gourcuff, but also fueling it as well, with the claims of internal division, such as the release of the Anelka rant information, causing internal frustration. This was exemplified to its highest level when Evra’s note mentioned that the FFF had made decisions based on facts from the media, rather than talking to the players.26 This demonstrated that the media not only reports the news, but they also influence it, which can be a dangerous line to cross.
Updated 2015 by Rebekah Ausbrook
1. Lichfield, John. “Jules Rimet: The man who kicked off the World Cup.” The Independent. (June 5 2006). Web. December 9, 2013. <http:/www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/jules-rimet-the-man-who-kicked-off-the-world-cup-481145.html>.
6. Richards, Matthew. “Filling the void: the Yoann Gourcuff Story (Part I).” AFR. (2012). Web. December 9, 2013. <http://afootballreport.com/post/23729775491/filling-the-void-the-yoann-gourcuff-story-pt-i>.
7. Lichfield, John. “Yoann Gourcuff: The New Zidane?” The Independent. (January 27, 2009). Web. December 9, 2013. <http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news-and-comment/yoann-gourcuff-the-new-zidane-1516832.html>.
8. Bairner, Robin. “Yoann Gourcuff Is Like Zinedine Zidane – France Winger Franck Ribery.” Goal. (September 8, 2009). Web. December 9, 2013. <http://www.goal.com/en/news/1863/world-cup-2010/2009/09/08/1488398/yoann-gourcuff-is-like-zinedine-zidane-france-winger-franck>.
9. “Raymond Domenech stays on as France coach despite Euro 2008 failure.” The New York Times. (July 3, 2008). Web. December 9, 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/sports/03iht-socfrance3.14210753.html?_r=0>.
10. “2010 FIFA World Cup qualification – UEFA Group 7.” Wikipedia. (November 18, 2013). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_FIFA_World_Cup_qualification_%E2%80%93_UEFA_Group_7>.
11. Burnton, Simon. “France and Portugal in battle of nerves as they struggle towards qualification.” The Guardian. (September 6, 2009). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/football/2009/sep/06/france-portugal-world-cup-qualifiers>.
12. Sportsmail Reporter. “World Cup 2010 qualifying round-up: Brazil through to finals to leave Argentina in limbo, France held at home as five star Spain trounce Belgium.” Mail Online. (September 6, 2009). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-1211586/World-Cup-2010-qualifying-round-Brazil-finals-leave-Argentina-limbo-France-held-home-star-Spain-trounce-Belgium.html>.
14. Smith, Rory. “Ireland 0 France 1: match report.” The Telegraph. (November 14, 2009). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/republic-of-ireland/6571290/Ireland-0-France-1-match-report.html>.
15. Glendenning, Barry. “World Cup play-off: France 1-1 Rep of Ireland (Agg: 2-1) – as it happened.” The Guardian. (November 18, 2009). Web. December 10, 2010. <http://www.theguardian.com/football/2009/nov/18/republic-ireland-france-world-cup-qualifier>.
16. Associated Press. “FIFA: No extra refs at World Cup.” ESPNsoccernet. (December 2, 2009). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://espnfc.com/world-cup/story/_/id/4706137/ce/us/thierry-henry-investigated-handball-no-extra-referees-world-cup-matches?cc=5901&ver=us>.
17. Hytner, David and Lawrence, Amy. “Ireland cheated out of World Cup by cruel hand of Thierry Henry.” The Guardian. (November 18, 2009). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/football/2009/nov/19/ireland-thierry-henry-france-hand>.
21. Richards, Matthew. “Filling the Void: the Yoann Gourcuff Story (Part II).” AFR. (2012). Web. December 9, 2013. <http://afootballreport.com/post/24054620938/filling-the-void-the-yoann-gourcuff-story-pt-ii>.
22. Jennifer. “Gourcuff Bullied and Other World Cup Tales.” The Offside. (June 16, 2010). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://bordeaux.theoffside.com/people/gourcuff/gourcuff-being-bullied-and-other-world-cup-tales.html>.
23. Sarah. “Les Bleus Least Likely Love Triangle: Ribery, Madame Ribery & Gourcuff.” World Cup Blog. (August 28, 2010). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.worldcupblog.org/general-banter/les-bleus-least-likely-love-triange-ribery-madame-ribery-gourcuff.html>.
24. Perrin, Fabien. “Domenech reveals all on Anelka row.” ESPN FC. (November 19, 2012). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://espnfc.com/news/story/_/id/1232203/domenech-reveals-all-on-anelka-bust-up?cc=5901>.
25. Telegraph staff and agencies. “World Cup 2010: Nicolas Anelka kicked out of France squad.” The Telegraph. (June 19, 2010). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/france/7840438/World-Cup-2010-Nicolas-Anelka-kicked-out-of-France-squad.html>.
26. Hytner, David. “World Cup 2010: French revolt leaves Raymond Domenech high and dry.” The Guardian. (June 20, 2010). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/football/2010/jun/20/france-raymond-domenech-nicolas-anelka>.
27. Sweeney, David. “Au Revoir: A Toast With Bordeaux To The Great, French Meltdown.” NPR. (June 22, 2010). Web, December 10, 2013. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/showmeyourcleats/2010/06/22/128008038/-tshabalala-is-now-french-for-loser>.
29. The Guardian. “World Cup 2010: French press rages after first round exit.” The Guardian. (June 23, 2010). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/football/2010/jun/23/french-press-world-cup-2010>.
33. Sportsmail Reporter. “French Federation and face disciplinary hearings over Euro conduct.” Mail Online. (July 3, 2012). Web. December 10, 2013. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2168171/Samir-Nasri-Hatem-Ben-Arfa-disciplinary-hearings-Euro-2012-conduct.html>.
How to cite this article: “The French Implosion,” Written by Halsey Friedel (2013), Soccer Politics Pages, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp (accessed on (date)). – See more at: http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/world-cup-2014/the-2010-south-africa-world-cup-highlights-politics-lessons-for-brazil/the-french-implosion/