Tuesday May 4th, 2010

For once, France's outspoken coach Raymond Domenech is a peripheral figure in the latest, and most significant, scandal to afflict the national team before its World Cup campaign.

The dust had finally settled on captain Thierry Henry's controversial role in the 'Hand of Gaul' goal, decisive in the qualifying playoff win over the Republic of Ireland; even talk over the identity of Domenech's successor and when he would be confirmed (most likely Laurent Blanc, mid-May) had quieted down. For once, the focus was on football, and Domenech's selection headache before his 23-man World Cup squad announcement on May 11.

Or at least it was, until news broke on April 18 of a police investigation into a prostitution ring operating out of a Champs-Elysees club called Zaman Cafe. Four France players were cited in connection with an underage call-girl, Zahia Dahar, and two of them, Franck Ribery and Sidney Govou, were questioned by police as witnesses. Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema is waiting to be questioned while another as-yet-named player, reportedly based in southern France, will also face a police grilling. Marseille's Hatem Ben Arfa has explicitly denied that he is involved.

As the most high-profile player on the list, and the only one who is married, Ribery has borne the brunt of the public hostility following the news. His working-class roots, devil-may-care style of play and even his appearance (he sustained his facial scar in a car crash aged two), had endeared him to fans when he broke into the France team just before the 2006 World Cup. His performances helped them reach the final. He had converted to Islam to marry his Muslim wife, Wahiba, in 2004, and the couple have two daughters.

The French press quoted judicial sources as saying Ribery has admitted having a relationship with Zahia D, as she is now known, who confirmed that fact (among other things) in France's first ever kiss-and-tell interview with Paris Match magazine last week. Zahia D has become a darling of the gossip press, and reportedly signed a lucrative deal to appear in reality TV show Secret Story, a French equivalent of 'Big Brother'. In a country where privacy laws have previously been well-respected, this scandal could leave misbehaving celebrities fearing the worst.

It is illegal in France to pay anyone under 18 for sex, though Ribery's lawyer Sophie Bottai insists her client is merely a witness in the case, and not a suspect. The worst-case scenario for the France team would be if charges were brought against any of their players. "If any France players were charged over this affair, I would advise the coach not to select them for the World Cup," France's Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot told TV station France 2.

The scandal could not have come at a worse time for Ribery, whose injury-plagued season has been overshadowed by constant speculation about his future. This time last year, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea were all interested in the Frenchman, with Real Madrid favourites given the role of Zinedine Zidane, Ribery's former France teammate, as the club's special advisor.

Bayern reportedly rejected Real Madrid's offer of $105 million for Ribery last summer, while Real Madrid's decision to sell Arjen Robben to Bayern Munich was seen as 'a down-payment' in return for first option on Ribery. The Spanish side, who like its players squeaky-clean, has turned its attention to another left winger, David Silva from Valencia. "This scandal has as good as ruined Ribery's hopes of moving to Madrid," wrote Spanish paper Marca. The irony is that Chelsea, no strangers to off-the-field controversies involving its players this season, may now attempt to sign Ribery.

On the pitch, Ribery has only completed five league matches for Bayern Munich this season, and in his first big match since the scandal broke, was sent off against Lyon for a reckless first-half tackle on Lisandro Lopez. He will now miss the Champions League final against Inter Milan, although Bayern is appealing against his suspension. "Uefa has gone well beyond its limits with this one," said pundit Gunter Netzer on Premiere TV. "We should not deprive a player of the biggest game of his career for this kind of foul," ran an editorial in German newspaper Bild. His appeal will be heard on Wednesday.

Ribery's relationship with Domenech was already rocky after the player's repeated demands to reprise his Bayern role on the left wing for France. "We can't always get what we want," Domenech told L'Equipe newspaper when confronted with Ribery's latest plea. "For example, I would rather be sitting by a swimming pool than answering your questions, but I'm not." At the moment, Henry, the captain, plays on the left, although Chelsea's in-form Florent Malouda is more likely to start there once the World Cup begins.

On Saturday, Ribery gave his first public statement since the story broke, speaking to Orange Sport after Bayern as good as clinched the Bundesliga title following a 3-1 win over Bochum: "It has hurt my family very much," was all he said.

Malouda is the only other France player to comment on the affair. While others, Henry and Benzema among them, turn their backs on TV cameras as soon as they are asked about Ribery, Malouda gave an honest appraisal to Resau France Outre-mer. "It does disrupt preparations and the players are obviously affected when they are thrown to the lions like that," he said. "You have to be careful to protect the institution that is the French team."

The affair has highlighted the increasing gulf between footballers and their public, and Ribery, once the poster-boy as football's 'man of the people,' may not be over the worst yet. "When I see how he prays before each match it makes me throw up," Ribery's former agent Bruno Heiderscheid told L'Equipe magazine. "He plays the role of a saint and after the match he's off having fun with girls. Nobody can imagine half of what he gets up to."

Ribery's team of advisors are reportedly weighing up offers to give a Tiger Woods-style 'mea culpa' interview as the project to rebuild his popularity begins. In the most obvious echo of the Woods case, his main sponsors, Nike, are standing by him.

But it could be a long road to redemption and Ribery can write off any hopes he had of replacing Henry as France captain after the World Cup finals. "I want to be the captain of France," he told France Football last year. "I feel more important for the team, and mature enough to wear the armband."

He has no chance of that now. But, less than six weeks before the World Cup is due to begin, you suspect that will be the least of his worries.

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