As an England fan during the summer’s World Cup in South Africa, one of my few consolations while watching Capello’s ment falter quite completely, was that at least we weren’t the laughing-stock of world football. That honour went, unanimously, to France. Their problems at the tournament were well documented: with player revolt, the sending home of Niclas Anelka and a boycott of training in protest from the remainder of the squad.
Coupled with their abject performances on the field of play which resulted in their failing to win a match and coming bottom of their group, 2010 wasn’t a roaring success. One could argue that this was the player’s fault – they’re a talented bunch, so maybe their attitude was questionable. That is certainly what the FFA seem to believe, and have punished them accordingly – with Anelka and three other players handed international bans. Yet this simply demonstrates, at least as far as I am concerned, that the problem is the FFA themselves.
Blaming the players is, I believe, the easy way out on the part of the FFA. They are the most visible representatives of French football and ultimately their on-pitch performance was the bottom line. While the off-field shambolics were pretty unacceptable, a victorious campaign or at least a run to the semis or final would have smoothed the whole thing over and the FFA would have been perfectly happy. So blaming the players initially makes sense.
But in reality, the players didn’t perform for one reason and one reason only, and that reason’s name is Raymond Domenech. The French coach who guided France to a similarly spectacularly unsuccessful campaign in the Euro 2008 championships (though less turbulent off the field) and who, it was announced bemusingly prior to the World Cup kicking off, was due to replaced by Laurent Blanc after the tournament ended.
This is of course, simply my opinion, but Domenech is a terrible coach. I can’t remember which player said it but I remember reading in the lead up to South Africa that the French squad were not given any time to practice defending set pieces because Domenech believed that as professional footballers, they should already be drilled in such procedures. This displays such a spectacular miscomprehension of the team-building element of international coaching that it almost beggars belief.
The simple fact is that these players spend most of their year playing for a wide array of different club sides. All of these club sides play different systems, and each side is made up by players of a range of nationalities, character and personality, who have varying strengths and weaknesses when it comes to playing football. As such, every club football side in the world specially organises the way they play – including set pieces – to suit the strengths of each player as far as possible.
The main facet of international management as I see it, is to achieve this effectively in a severely reduced window of opportunity. International coaches don’t get very long to mould their players to a mutual purpose and to get them playing together as a team. They have the advantages though, in being able to rely on an especially talented group of players – that is the nature of a selective national team – and in their sharing a common sense of patriotism for the honour of representing their country.
That Domenech saw fit to prevent his side from practicing set pieces suggests a lot about his approach to international management, implied that he didn’t comprehend the level of togetherness required to succeed. This was reflected clearly in France’s performances in South Africa – they resembled a group of strangers out on the pitch, their passing was clunky and awkward and more often than not players like Ribery and Gourcouff simply eschewed the team mates altogether and went it alone.
Of course, one could suggest that the players ought to have been professional enough to pull together even under the overwhelming ineptitude of Domenech’s coaching and attempt to play on despite the disability to make their countrymen proud. This suggestion is certainly valid, and the players are not without blame, but I think Niclas Anelka’s aggressive reaction to being substituted – the incident that sparked the controversy – shows that the players, or Anelka at least, were exceedingly frustrated with the inhibitions on their potential, and that at least shows that they cared.
For me, this is why the blame lies with the FFA. Because I think it’s fair to say that quite a lot of people in football saw France’s miserable tournament coming. Of course, no one would have presumed to have predicted the off-field controversy, but I for one was fully expecting France to have a distinctly underwhelming tournament on the pitch, despite the talent that they have at their disposal. Domenech, after all, has form.
That he was kept on at coach even after France’s poor showing at Euro 2008 is where the buck stops. After such an abject performance from a nation that feels it should be challenging for European Championships and World Cups, to accept Domenech’s failure and let him continue was simply unacceptable. It implied that Domenech’s performance was acceptable, and allowed the frustration in the international camp to grow and grow.
Let’s not forget that they just barely made it to the World Cup in the first place – if there was any justice in the world they wouldn’t have done, because Ireland were robbed by the ‘Hand of Frog’. So a man who led them to a terrible showing in Euro 2008 and relied on the extremely fortuitous Hand of Frog to get them through a play off should quite simply never have been allowed to lead his country in South Africa. The FFA backed the wrong horse, and must accept the blame.
But they aren’t accepting the blame. They’ve dished out an 18 match ban to Niclas Anelka (effectively ending his international career) while also banning Patrice Evra for five games, Franck Ribery for three and Jeremy Toulalan for one. This is simply a ridiculous move on the part of the FFA and one that will only impact negatively on French football as they, as an organisation, demonstrate that they are just as clueless as Domenech was on what makes a team tick.
Incoming manager Laurent Blanc demonstrated that he would ‘take no shit from no one‘ by selecting an entirely new 23 man squad for his first fixture in charge, a meaningless friendly. He then asked that no further punishments be awarded to allow him to get on with his job of revitalising the French team. Sensible words indeed, which of course went unheeded by the FFA. In handing out these bans, they have jeopardised their next qualifying campaign.
Look at it whichever way you want, Evra, Ribery, Toulalan and Anelka are some of France’s best players. They will be missed by Blanc’s side when they begin their qualifying campaign. What’s more, once Blanc has established a side in their absence, their return may also disrupt squad harmony as players who have proved themselves and perhaps established a place in the side may have to step aside as the ‘big names’ and big talents return to the fold.
This could lead to yet another disruption in the performance of the side on the pitch, which is after all, where it counts, which would be directly related to the meddling involvement of French football’s governing body. Ultimately, the lesson that has to be taken from all this is that football associations have to make their choices right and then sit back and take the consequences. They got it wrong with Domenech, but took it out on the players, which has initiated a cycle which will now affect Laurent Blanc’s regime.
It shows a fundamental lack of foresight on the part of the FFA, a short-sighted desire to simply blunder around and look as if they are doing something to improve the situation. The simple fact is that the only people who can improve the situation of French football are the players and the manager, because they’re the only ones anywhere near the pitch which is where you have to do your talking in this sport.
So there’s a valuable lesson for any country to be learned by watching France shoot themselves in the foot. Don’t fuck around with things that you don’t understand, let the people in the know get on with their job. I would also suggest to the English FA that if they don’t want to mirror France and see a failed World Cup turn into an utterly shambolic European Championships they might want to consider getting rid of Fabio Capello to negate the ‘Domenech effect’.
Poor communication between management and players, dissatisfaction amongst the squad regarding training methods and the atmosphere in the camp, impromptu dismissal of highly thought of squad members… Capello is heading down a slippery slope, is he not?
I’d be really interested to hear your views on this issue. Were the FFA right to ban Anelka and the other players? Who is responsible for the shambles in South Africa? Leave a comment below…