Laurent Blanc has spent his first nine months in charge of the France team painstakingly repairing the damage of the 2010 World Cup: both to the image of the team, which became a global laughingstock after going on strike in South Africa; and its players, unhappy and underperforming with then-coach Raymond Domenech in charge.
Most people agree that he has done a fine job. He has pushed out the older guard and introduced a new generation of players, while the team is unbeaten in its last six matches, a run which includes a competitive win in Bosnia and prestigious victories over England and Brazil.
Next week, though, Blanc might walk away from the job. He has been considering his position over the last few days, following reports that he supported a French football federation proposal to introduce an ethnic quota at training academies to prevent dual-nationality players learning their trade in France before representing other countries. There were nine players at the last World Cup who played for France's youth teams but switched nations.
The story, first published by investigative website Mediapart -- who broke last year's biggest political scandal concerning right-wing minister Eric Woerth and L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt -- has dominated the headlines, and Blanc is surprised and upset that his reputation has been called into question.
Mediapart published a transcript of the recording of a meeting last November, presided over by National Technical Director François Blaquart, in which Blanc was quoted as being "favorable" to the idea of "limiting" numbers. Blaquart was quoted as saying: "We could trace, on a non-spoken basis, a sort of quota. But it must not be said. It stays as action only. There you are, we be careful." He has since been suspended from his job.
What started off as a quota scandal quickly developed into a race row, when Blanc's comments at the meeting were seized upon. "You have the impression the academies really train the same prototype of players, big, strong, powerful. Big, strong, powerful. Big, strong, powerful. What is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks. And that's how it is. It is a current fact. In the training-centers, in the football schools, well, there are many."
At this stage, Blanc's words become a question of interpretation. He does not consider this comment to be racist: indeed, journalists in Bordeaux, where he used to coach, have heard him at news conferences say similar things. At a hastily-called news conference last week, he accepted that his comments were ambiguous "when taken out of context," but insisted he was not trying to reduce the number of black or North African players in French soccer, merely grappling with the issue of dual-nationality players. After all, he also said at the meeting: "If we only develop black players, and they feel French and want to play for France, that suits me fine."
France and Bordeaux captain Alou Diarra backed Blanc, rubbishing the racism accusation and voicing Blanc's frustration at the ever-decreasing pool of players he has to choose from. Significantly, the meeting came just after another French academy graduate, Lille's Moussa Sow and currently Ligue 1's top scorer, had opted to represent Senegal instead of France.
Even Mediapart wrote that it was not accusing the federation of racism, but had used the words "discrimination" and "segregation." But for others, the damage had already been done. Lilian Thuram, who along with Blanc was a World Cup winner with France as part of a team hailed for its multicultural "blanc-noir-beur" identity in 1998, said Blanc's apology was not good enough. "I fear we're in the middle of something very serious. When will we emerge from this cycle?" he told RTL. "When will we escape from these prejudices about skin colour?" Patrick Vieira, another former teammate, told Le Monde that he would have trouble understanding if everyone at the meeting kept their jobs.
The image of the 1998 team as unified was well and truly shattered when Christophe Dugarry, another member of the team and now a TV pundit, also came out in support of his friend Blanc, or rather, hit out at Thuram.
He told Infosport on Canal Plus that Thuram had surprised him in the dressing-room after the World Cup final by asking that a picture be taken of the trophy with all the black players. "Those are discriminatory words and at no point did we misinterpret them and at no point did we imagine that Lilian Thuram was a racist," he said. At the time, Franck Leboeuf picked up on the comment and asked Thuram how he would have liked it if someone had said, "Let's get a photo with all the whites." Bixente Lizarazu, Emmanuel Petit, Marcel Desailly and Aime Jacquet, the coach fro 1998, have since spoken vociferously in the pro-Blanc camp.
There are other threads to the story still unraveling: like the role of Mohamed Belkacemi, the FA's technical adviser overseeing its neighborhood soccer program, who made the recording and gave it to French FA amateur football director Andre Prevosto. Belkacemi is a civil servant who in 2009, was made a Knight of the National Order of Merit, but has denied giving the tape to Mediapart. So what did Prevosto do with the recording, who did leak it to Mediapart, and why?
Perhaps the timing is no coincidence: the French FA's election for a new president is in June, and this affair certainly undermines the acting president Fernand Duchaussoy. At the moment, deputy Noel Le Graet is his only opponent, but it¹s not too late for others to announce their candidacy. (Not to mention the fact that next summer is the French presidential elections, with immigration, integration and identity high on the agenda.)
There is also the prominent position French sports minister Chantal Jouanno has taken. After first agreeing to a joint-investigation with the French FA, she has commissioned a separate inquiry into the affair, claiming in an interview with Le Parisien that "if quotas concerning dual nationality holders are proven, it is a crime and is subject to penal law." Her proximity to the story seems a breach of FIFA's very clear directive forbidding government interference in any national federation.
The French federation has not helped itself by denying the story before the tapes' release, then demanding the leak be identified before addressing the issues at hand. It wants Blanc to remain coach, as does Jouanno, though reports suggest it's 50-50 whether he will survive the inquiry (a L'Equipe poll on Friday showed 81 percent wanted Blanc to keep his job).
And yet the decision could be out of their hands: instead, Blanc, who spent last week in Italy stewing on how the affair has been (mis)managed, might quit. That would be a disaster for French soccer, but you can't help thinking it's one of their own making. Blanc would certainly have no shortage of job offers over the summer.
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.