It's been over two months since France's players went on strike during the World Cup in protest of the French football federation's decision to send home striker Nicolas Anelka, but it might as well have been yesterday given the mess the team faces as its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign gets under way.
New coach Laurent Blanc tried to draw a line under the recent past by leaving all 23 World Cup players off the squad in last month's friendly in Norway, but the federation has ensured that the fiasco is not forgotten by handing out arbitrary suspensions to four players whom Blanc will miss for next week's matches against Belarus and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Anelka's 18-game ban effectively ends his international career, but it is the other sanctions -- captain Patrice Evra was given five games, vice-captain Franck Ribery three and Jeremy Toulalan (for admitting he drafted the controversial "strike letter" read out by coach Raymond Domenech and signed by the whole team) one game -- that has left Blanc bemused and angry.
"I don't understand the differences in these sanctions," Blanc said in a statement he released after the FA disciplinary committee made its decision without his input. "To my knowledge this strike was a collective decision, even if some players did have more power. But if we want to get over this episode from the World Cup, we need to start winning games. If we don't do that, this story will linger."
Banning key players from competition does not help France's chances. Evra is appealing the ban with his lawyer making the "collective decision" argument.
But his case was overshadowed by a row with FA council member Lilian Thuram, a former World Cup winner who had demanded that Evra be banned for life from representing France. "He sullied my name without knowing what happened," a furious Evra told Le Figaro. "Lilian thinks he's the new coach, president of the French FA and president of France. Walking around with books on slavery in glasses and a hat does not turn you into Malcolm X."
This week, Aime Jacquet, Michel Hidalgo and Guy Roux, three of the most senior figures in the French game, showed their support for Blanc by writing an open letter to the federation requesting the punishments be lifted and replaced with fines or community service work. "The committee has hindered the progress of the new French team. This merely puts oil on the fire instead of putting the fire out."
Evra's absence will most likely be covered by Gael Clichy while the impressive Yann M'Vila could step in for Toulalan, a surprise omission for the Bosnia game. But Ribery is the greatest loss. With Lyon's new signing, Yoann Gourcuff, serving a suspension for his red card against South Africa at the World Cup, and replacement Samir Nasri injured, Ribery would have taken on the playmaker role next week. Blanc has also had no choice but to ignore Hatem Ben Arfa, who has gone on strike at Marseille in his efforts to force a transfer from the club. The lack of a number 10 will force Blanc to start with a 4-4-2 formation, with one of his forward options Louis Saha, whose last France appearance was in November 2006.
Two other stories rumbling in the background have not helped Blanc's preparations. Last week, former France team doctor Jean-Pierre Paclet published his book, The Implosion, alleging members of the 1998 World Cup-winning side had suspicious blood test results prior to tournament (an old claim that has already been denied). And at Bordeaux, Blanc's former club, new coach Jean Tigana has been moaning at the mess he has inherited, telling the press that he is "taking on a club in the middle of a losing cycle".
France's 2-1 loss to Norway made it three defeats in a row for Les Bleus, their worst run of results for over 30 years, and though Belarus at home should not cause them too many problems, an away game in Bosnia, which can field prolific Bundesliga strikers Edin Dzeko (Wolfsburg) and Vedad Ibisevic (Hoffenheim) and France-based duo Emir Spahic (Montpellier) and Miralem Pjanic (Lyon), is an altogether trickier proposition. It's made no easier when your bosses prevent you from picking three certain starters.
"Being a coach is extremely tiring and I can't see myself doing for this years and years like Guy Roux [Auxerre coach for 44 years]," Blanc told So Foot magazine during his first year at Bordeaux. "You might run into me in 10 years time and say,'Oh you're still around,' but I think that would be miraculous. I remember that when I began my coaching career, some managers said to me,'Welcome to our mad world.' They were right."
Perhaps it's only now that Blanc is beginning to understand just how right they were.