As it readies itself to host Euro 2016, France has been hit with terrorism, tragedy and scandals, casting a cloud over the nation, writes Jonathan Wilson.
The good news for France is that Olivier Giroud scored a hat trick for Arsenal against Olympiakos on Wednesday, taking his tally to 12 goals in his last 15 appearances for club and country and, perhaps, at last suggesting that he can thrive when the pressure is really on. The bad news is just about everything else.
From the tragic to the trivial to the weird, France’s preparations for Euro 2016, which it will host next summer, have been hit by a series of problems.
The latest difficulty came 18 hours after Giroud’s hat trick. There had been some talk of Giroud competing for France's center forward role with Karim Benzema, but the general assumption was that the Real Madrid striker would get the nod over the Arsenal man, if only because Giroud so often seems to freeze on the biggest occasions.
But on Thursday the president of the French Football Federation, Noel Le Graet, took–and he stressed it was a personal decision, not one taken by the executive committee or the ethics commission–what he called “a heartbreaking decision” and ruled that Benzema cannot be selected for the France national team while he is facing charges of conspiracy to blackmail.
“As long as the judicial system has not decided that everything that has been published is excessive, the federation will not change its mind.” Le Graet said.
The wording is vague, but it appears to mean that Benzema cannot be selected until the case against him is concluded, which means he could miss Euro 2016. Benzema has been accused of involvement in an attempt to blackmail international teammate Mathieu Valbuena over an alleged sex tape featuring the Lyon winger. He has admitted approaching Valbuena, but claims he was doing so on behalf of a friend and was not aware of any attempt to harm.
He denies being involved in any blackmail or blackmail attempt.
Valbuena spoke of feeling betrayed and it’s perhaps no surprise that Le Graet felt impelled to act. Quite apart from anything else, there is the logistical issue that Benzema is not legally allowed to meet Valbuena until the case is resolved. Both were omitted from last month’s friendly internationals against Germany and England, but that situation could not be allowed to go on indefinitely.
France prime minister Manuel Valls has spoken out in the case, saying, “A great athlete should be exemplary. If he is not, he has no place in the France team. There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes. They wear the blue jersey, the colors of France, which are so important in these moments.”
That hints at the wider issue, which is that Benzema is a Muslim of Algerian descent and hugely popular among France’s Muslim population. During the World Cup in South Africa, when the France team effectively went on strike, there were many who questioned just how French the team, many of whom are from immigrant backgrounds, was.
The suggestion was that the social problems of the banlieues, the sense of disillusionment that is rife in certain suburbs of Paris and Lyon, was undermining the national side. Benzema is a hero of the banlieues: banning him risks, at the very least, further alienating that section of the population. 1998, when France won the World Cup on home soil and was hailed as a symbol of a multiracial nation, seems like an awfully long time ago.
Issues of integration, of course, were brought chillingly into football on the night of Nov. 13, when 130 people were killed by terrorists in Paris and a bomber tried to set off a suicide vest at the Stade de France during the game against Germany. Whatever else happens, Euro 2016 is not going to be the easygoing festival of sport, cuisine and wine many hoped it would be; security concerns will be paramount and the France side, in particular, will bear with it a social responsibility.
And then there’s the ongoing dispute between arguably France’s greatest player, suspended UEFA president Michel Platini, and FIFA as he continues to contest his ban for allegedly accepting a bribe not to stand for the FIFA presidency against Sepp Blatter. A verdict from the Court of Arbitration for Sport is expected Friday.
The dream for France would have been Platini, who captained the nation to the title last time it hosted the tournament, in 1984, handing over the trophy (which is named after Henri Delaunay, the French inventor of the competition) to captain Hugo Lloris along with manager Didier Deschamps, who was France’s captain both when it won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. Four generations would have been brought together in one symbolic moment; instead, in his likely absence, Platini will cast a shadow.
Terrorism, bribery and blackmail. It’s hard to imagine what else could go wrong for France as it readies itself for Saturday’s draw.