Laurent Blanc, already slated as new France coach after the World Cup, might have had mixed feelings watching Les Bleus labor through a goalless draw against 10-man Uruguay in their Group A opener last week. As a proud Frenchman, he would have wanted his national team to win; but then again, the performance was so poor that he would be hard-pressed to do a worse job than current boss Raymond Domenech. As one French blogger put it, Domenech must be a genius, "because no one else can make so many talented players play this badly together."
Domenech's decision to drop winger Florent Malouda was a huge surprise, at least until details of what happened between the two men emerged, while the coach's tactics and substitutions seemed bizarre. For instance, he asked the non-scoring Sidney Govou to cover as center forward when the equally non-scoring Nicolas Anelka dropped back. When he did bring on Malouda for Yoann Gourcuff, heleft the Chelsea man on the right of a midfield three, almost as far away as he could have been from his favored left-wing position.
As soon as the game finished, Domenech was ripe for a bashing from the French media, who normally need little encouragement. "What is Domenech playing at?" ran one newspaper headline, and another: "Wandering in search of a goal."
But then Le Parisien reported that Malouda had disagreed with Domenech's pregame plan to pick him at left midfield in a 4-3-3 formation. "You shouldn't be asking me to stay back and defend; my strength is further up the pitch," Malouda reportedly said, pointing to the 15 goals he scored in Chelsea's League and Cup-winning season. On the night before the game, Malouda was overaggressive in tackling his teammates in training, but by then, he had already talked himself out of the lineup.
Last month, Domenech had told a press conference, "If anyone steps out of line, I will get my gun out." His warning had not been heeded, and Malouda paid the price. While much of the debate in France focused on Domenech's team selection, Malouda has also come in for a lot of stick.
"The last thing you want is a player asking to play somewhere else. It should be about what's best for the team," Willy Sagnol, who was part of France's second-place team at the 2006 World Cup, told Canal Plus. He added that Germany's Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller play different roles for their clubs and their national team, but you don't hear them complaining.
"You have to put your ego to one side and work for the collective," Zinedine Zidane told Canal Plus. "No player can make a claim for anything. They should all be thinking of bringing something positive to the team."
Malouda does deserve some sympathy. He is the only France player who comes into the tournament having shown anything near decent form for his club side, and he endured a wretched Euro 2008 in which, once again, he was blamed for being too defensive. "People got angry with me," he told L'Equipe. "I was attacked, criticized, while I was only doing what the coach had asked me.
"Maybe I don't defend myself well enough."
On this occasion he has made public his feelings respecting the coach's decision, but feeling his form warrants a place. However, at the moment the media sense less charm and more offensive to his PR campaign -- although he remains a popular figure in the squad.
The Malouda row has not let France's other underperforming players off the hook. Franck Ribery was poor except for one cross after seven minutes; Anelka's drifting from his central position left the penalty area empty far too often (he has not registered a shot on target in his last four France matches, which says it all); and Yoann Gourcuff's confidence looked shot following rumored requests from France's senior players to have him dropped. Gourcuff did not make a single pass to Anelka in the match. "It's about time he showed his character out there on the pitch," former French defender Bixente Lizarazu said. "He needs to step up to the plate."
It's not only the media whose relations with the France squad are at a low point. When the players visited a township on Sunday, they refused to be accompanied by their sports minister, Rama Yade, who had upset them by criticizing their choice of luxury hotel in South Africa. Yade, unlikely to be staying in a shack herself, made a separate trip to the same township once Les Bleus had left.
Mexico is France's next opponent, on Thursday night, and Domenech has to decide what, if any, changes to make. As Abou Diaby was France's best player, he could revert back to a 4-2-3-1 with Diaby as one of the two defensive midfielders with Malouda, Ribery and Anelka behind Thierry Henry at center forward. Or he could stick with the 4-3-3 and change the front trio to either Malouda or Henry on the left and either Andre-Pierre Gignac or Ribery supporting Anelka. Or, and this would be typically Domenech, he might just stick with the underperformers who played against Uruguay; this seems likely given that Ribery, Anelka and Govou trained away from the group on Monday afternoon.
If Domenech has any idea what his best team or his best system is, he does a very good job of hiding it. In an interview with one of his former players, Vikash Dhorasoo, in So Foot magazine, the coach was asked about his favored style of play.
"What's that question supposed to mean?" Domenech said.
"How do you want your team to play? With a sweeper, playing counterattack, or with a number 10?"
"My style of play is to win games," Domenech said.
"That's not an answer," the frustrated Dhorasoo replied.
Now the French public understands exactly how Dhorasoo feels. The frustration is even affecting the players, and Domenech is running out of time to win games. His reign could be over in a week.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.