The last time France were knocked out of an international tournament (Euro 2008), coach Raymond Domenech famously proposed to his girlfriend live on TV. She did not say yes, but at least Thursday night he had the decency not to repeat the question. Instead, he was visibly upset after the toothless 2-0 defeat to Mexico as good as eliminated Les Bleus from the World Cup. "I don't know how to describe what we saw, I can't find the words," he stuttered in front of a record 15 million TV viewers.
Others did not have the same problem. "A total failure," said France's 1998 World Cup winning-coach Aime Jacquet. "Catastrophic," said the fullback from that team, Bixente Lizarazu. "It was shameful," admitted winger Florent Malouda, while goalkeeper Hugo Lloris added, "I'd better say no comment otherwise I'll only say something I regret."
Sympathy is in short supply throughout France: Domenech has been pilloried for his tactical and selection choices ever since he decided before the tournament to try out, and then stick with, a 4-3-3 system that never worked. (Even losing 1-0 to China in a pre-tournament warmup, ranked 84 in the world, did not deter him.) Against Mexico, Domenech reverted to the 4-2-3-1 system that the players had been pushing for -- and almost every single one of them let him down.
"Domenech was suffocated by his own ego and overtaken by the egos of his players," read L'Equipe's stinging front-page editorial underneath the headline, "The Impostors." "Don't shed any tears for this team, as they don't deserve it," it continued. "The 'I-don't-care' attitude is the only thing which links the players in this France squad. It¹s time to replace the cockerel as our national symbol with a headless chicken."
That would be appropriate for the center-back partnership of William Gallas and Eric Abidal, fears over which proved well-founded as first Gallas was rooted to the spot to allow Carlos Salcido a shot, and then Abidal's late lunge on Pablo Berrera conceded the penalty that led to the second goal. "I didn't come to this World Cup to be ridiculed, to play three matches and go home," Abidal told So Foot before the Mexico game. "f that was the case it wouldn't have been worth coming."
L'Equipe gave Abidal¹s performance a rating of 2 out 10, but he was not the only one. Sidney Govou also scored 2, with his inclusion a mystery considering his recent scoring record of three goals in 45 league matches, and none in his last 12 for France. Domenech could have played Anelka on the right and Thierry Henry or Andre-Pierre Gignac through the middle.
Instead, Anelka was the center forward, once again dropping far too deep but at least he hit a shot on target, his first in five France matches. It was no surprise to see him replaced at halftime. "How Anelka kept his place I will never know," Lizarazu told TF1. "He showed no desire, and he's the first player I've ever seen just walking around during a World Cup match. When your attack is pedestrian and does nothing, what do you expect?"
How France could have done with Gonzalo Higuain, a striker born in Brest and who as recently as two years ago could have played for France. Instead, he hit a hat trick for Argentina Wednesday.
Franck Ribery also came in for severe criticism: he had made it known that he wanted to be seen as a leader of the team, and a potential captain in the making, but, given the central position behind Anelka, he drifted to the left far too often and made poor decisions with the ball, usually because he was trying to save the team on his own.
Domenech's passivity in the last 10 minutes of the game against Mexico summed up France's ineptitude. With the team still not mathematically out of the competition, one goal could have been crucial to the goal difference in the group: but there was no reaction, no coaching, and no third substitute to be seen from the bench. Of those that could have come on, Yoann Gourcuff, Djibril Cisse and Henry were "warming up" behind a goal, as if geographical distance from Domenech would somehow absolve them from the defeat. It was a clear sign of the divisions that have been evident for a while.
So, what's next for this team? The good news is that new coach Laurent Blanc now has the perfect excuse to get rid of a generation of players: Henry, Govou, Anelka, Gallas, and even Abidal may all have played their last matches for Les Bleus.
As for Domenech, with no club likely to employ him, he has said he's happy to return to the ranks of the French football federation, where he will probably help upcoming coaches pass their exams. His most outspoken critic, TF1 summarizer Jean-Michel Larque, thinks even that will be beyond him. "I had him as an instructor when I was taking my coaching badges and his lessons were full of nothing," he wrote in his anti-Domenech book Vert de Rage (Green with Rage).
Domenech once admitted that he almost wore a Mickey Mouse tie before his interview for the post of France coach in July 2004, but he decided against it at the last minute. He should have worn the tie in the end -- it would have summed up the six years of his reign perfectly.
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.