Armchair Pundit

A very French controversy

Alex Chick

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More bad news for England fans. Despite the woeful performance against Algeria, despite the players' obvious emotional constipation, Fabio Capello's increasingly poisonous relationship with the press and Wayne Rooney's sarcastic barb at the 'supporters' booing him off last night, England are not even the most dysfunctional team at the World Cup.

That honour goes to France, holding off competition from Australia and Cameroon (both reportedly in open dispute with their manager).

Les Bleus got one player lighter today after Nicolas Anelka was sent home for insulting coach Raymond Domenech and refusing to apologise. The rest of the squad will be joining him on Tuesday.

There was something clearly wrong with France during their 2-0 defeat against Mexico, and this morning it became clear exactly what.

Respected sports daily L'Equipe carried the eyewatering front-page headline: "Go f*** yourself, dirty son of a whore!"

Pretty strong stuff, especially for a serious newspaper that usually steers clear of the tabloid stuff. (The most offensive British headline I can think of is the comparatively tame 'Up Yours Delors' from The Sun.)

Anelka is supposed to have directed the phrase in question at Domenech during a half-time row in the Mexico game. He was promptly substituted.

The French Federation gave him the opportunity to issue a grovelling apology to the coach, but he refused, and was promptly told to pack his bags.

A pretty cut-and-dried case, yes?

Well, no.

Today, Anelka gave his side of the story. While he denied saying the exact words attributed to him, he admitted to a "heated discussion" with the coach. In any case, that wasn't his main beef.

He was furious that the ruckus ever became public knowledge: "It happened in the sanctity of the dressing room, between the coach and I, in front of my team-mates and the team's staff.

"This should never have left the dressing room."

He continued: "I don't know who it helps to spread this sort of stuff around, but certainly not the players."

And this afternoon, it all got that bit more bizarre, as France captain Patrice Evra backed the man expelled from the squad and expanded on the theme of treachery within the ranks.

Making the whole thing sound like an Agatha Christie novel, Evra said: "(The leak) came from someone in this group, who wishes the French team harm ... the problem isn't Anelka, it's the traitor among us."

What is this - Murder on the Polokwane Express?

And if the traitor is "not the players" you don't have to be Hercule Poirot to know at whom the fingers are pointing:

"Monsieur Domenech, it is you who is leaving ze bosom of ze French team after this sorry charade. It is you who has a reputation to protect, non? You were angry with Anelka, ze players had deserted you, you were at your wits' end, so you talked to the journaliste from L'Equipe. Helas! Monsieur Domenech do you really think you could hide ze truth from Poirot?"

There is something uniquely French about this, in the way they miss the larger point and get wrapped up in minor details.

If Anelka insulted his coach, however much he deserved it, he has to go home. The fact that the row should not have left the four walls of the dressing room is neither here nor there.

It was just like this four years ago, after Zinedine Zidane's inexcusable chest-butt on Marco Materazzi in the final.

First they argued that the officials had illegally used video technology to identify and punish the offence, then they focused on what Materazzi said to wind Zidane up - which family member did the Italian insult and how?

All of this ignored that 'he said my mum was fat' has never been a valid excuse for assaulting an opponent, and that Zidane could have waited 15 minutes, done Materazzi some serious physical harm after the game and walked off into the sunset without damaging his team.

Say what you like about England, but when our players get stupidly sent off, and they surely do, we do not deflect the blame on to the Simeones or Carvalhos. Well, not too much. We enjoy tearing down our idols too much to worry about why they did what they did.

While the English like their stories black and white, the French prefer complexity. They love intrigue, process and protocol.

As a consequence, they have a 21-man squad (they are a goalkeeper light after Cedric Carrasso's injury), a captain seemingly in open dispute with the national football federation, and a lame duck coach despised by his players.

It is brilliant, and I for one hope the French somehow stay in the competition so we can have another week of this madness. Allez Les Bleus!

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