French Team Faces Fight for Image After ‘Disaster’

France's supporters
France's supporters react at the end of France vs. South Africa on June 22, 2010. Photographer: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

The French soccer team must fight to regain the respect of fans and the public after ending a World Cup campaign marked by a squad mutiny and the failure to win a single match, players said.

France’s second consecutive failure at a major tournament has become a political issue. President Nicolas Sarkozy met with cabinet members today and will meet tomorrow with Thierry Henry, France’s top international goal scorer.

“The image we’ve shown to the world, the way they see France right now is a disaster,” France midfielder Florent Malouda told reporters after yesterday’s 2-1 loss to tournament host South Africa in Bloemfontein. “We as players are the first responsible for that.”

The defeat followed a 0-0 draw with Uruguay and 2-0 loss to Mexico to ensure that France, runner-up four years ago, exited in the first round by finishing last in its group. It last won a game at an international tournament in 2006, and was eliminated at the group stage of the 2008 European Championship.

Having already lost control of its destiny in South Africa going into the final round of pool matches, the campaign was further derailed during the weekend when the players refused to train after striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home for insulting coach Raymond Domenech at halftime of the defeat to Mexico.

Evra Demoted

National team captain Patrice Evra, demoted to the substitutes’ bench yesterday, said he wanted to apologize to the nation for the players’ refusal to train and was prevented from doing so by Domenech.

Evra said he’ll make a statement on his return to France to “tell everything I lived, everything that I saw.”

“Everybody needs to hear the reasons for this disaster,” he told reporters. “There’s nothing to hide. The French team doesn’t answer to one person, it answers to all the French people.”

The Manchester United defender added that the squad will refuse any financial bonuses related to their performance in South Africa.

“We won’t accept one centime,” Evra said.

The French Football Federation said in a statement that the players weren’t due any bonuses, having failed to meet the minimum objective of qualifying for the second round.

French-Belgian hamburger chain Quick and French bank Credit Agricole SA suspended advertising campaigns involving the squad.

Henry Meeting

Sarkozy met today with Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, minister of health, who also counts sports in her portfolio, and under-secretary for sports Rama Yade.

“The head of state asked his ministers to make sure that those responsible rapidly draw the necessary conclusions from this disaster,” Sarkozy’s office said in a statement.

He called for a meeting of football industry executives in the autumn “to contribute in all transparency” to an overhaul and a “more general reflection on the governance of sports federations.”

Jean-Pierre Escalettes, the president of the French Football Federation, last night repeatedly avoided questions from television journalists about whether he’d resign.

Parliamentary Debate

“The government should never have had to get involved in the World Cup,” Bachelot said during a parliamentary debate today. “But you have all seen the disaster that results from immature thugs leading frightened players, a coach without authority, and a federation that’s out of its depth. That’s why the government has decided to take charge.”

Tomorrow’s meeting between Sarkozy and Henry, who has scored 51 goals in 122 appearances for France, was at the request of the player, said Franck Louvrier, a spokesman for Sarkozy. He wouldn’t say what the meeting is about.

Henry only appeared as a substitute during this World Cup.

The players may have underestimated the reaction to their mutiny ahead of such a crucial match, according to Malouda.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be possible but we have to work hard to restore the image of the French national team,” he said. “We realize that we hurt a lot of people.”

The World Cup failure will face further examination back home, according to Bachelot, the health minister.

“We are returning to France distraught,” she said last night. “This match was a catastrophe.”

Under Scrutiny

The French team had been under scrutiny before the tournament, after former national team captain Laurent Blanc was appointed to replace Domenech a month before the start. The 1998 world champion scraped into the finals with a playoff victory over Ireland that was earned after Henry admitted to handling the ball to set up the decisive goal.

Domenech described his six-year tenure in charge of the national team as a “splendid adventure,” adding that “there have been great times and bad for everyone.”

“I think we need to be dignified both in victory and defeat,” Domenech said at a post-match news conference.

Even so, Domenech didn’t shake the hand of South Africa coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who guided Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title, at the end of the match.

While Domenech refused to answer questions about the snub, Parreira offered an explanation at his press conference.

“I believe it was because I had criticized his team after they qualified, but I really don’t remember,” the Brazilian said. “This is what his assistants told me.”

The incident may have done more damage to the squad’s current standing back home, said Fabien Barthez, the goalkeeper on France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team.

“It’s appalling, the game is over, you shake hands,” Barthez said on France’s TF1 channel. “It’s Parreira, it’s not some nobody. You be a gentleman about it, you be a man about it. There are children watching. What message is he sending?”

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