France's previous triumphs have shielded both players and coach from too much derision after their embarassing exit, says Neil McCarthy
It is worth underlining just how bad France were. Reigning World Cup champions have frequently disappointed, but never to this extent. Despite boasting the leading strikers of the French, English and Italian leagues, they didn’t even score a single goal. It was the worst performance of a World Cup holder, surpassing the 1962 winners Brazil, who at least managed to score goals and win one of three matches in 1966.
France had danced in the streets in 1998 and 2000. Not in 2002. From the first match,the public began to abandon their heroes as quickly as they had adopted them four years earlier. By the time Denmark had hammered home the final nail in coffin, people were already sick of Zidane’s thigh opening the news and the totally inappropriate advertising campaigns boasting France’s superiority. After elimination, the sponsors rolled out the adverts they had prepared in case of defeat, the majority of them just as far off the mark as those that had preceded them. “Thank you, the artists, for coming so close to a second victory,” announced one full-page newspaper ad the following day.
WSC may have announced “France will be pap” on their front cover two months ago, but no one in France even considered the possibility. There was therefore much difficulty coming to terms with the crushing defeat. Players on their way back to earlier-than-expected holidays, offered the same, lame excuses of “bad luck”, “too many matches” and “refereeing decisions”. Those with something interesting to say, notably Thierry Henry, Philippe Christanval and Willy Sagnol, said nothing. Faithful and united to the last, not one had anything nasty to say, in public at least, against a fellow-player or against the coach, Roger Lemerre.
While you could walk into any bar in France and hear “Lemerre is an idiot”, “Djorkaeff and Dugarry are over the hill”, “Leboeuf always was crap”, and so on, it was hard to find anyone in French football who would be so brutal in public. Auxerre coach Guy Roux, a critic of most things in the national set-up, argued that France were “physically, technically, tactically and mentally under par”. However, he also refused to blame Lemerre and said he should carry on in the job. Rolland Courbis, another coach usually good for a hot-headed reaction, had a similar reaction: “It wasn’t Roger Lemerre who screwed up these finals, but the whole group.” Like many, he questioned the federation’s decision to play a friendly against South Korea just before the finals, a match France won 3-2, but which also saw the catastrophic injury to Zidane.
It was to such an atmosphere that Lemerre returned to France on June 14 and pointedly refused to resign at a meeting with the federation, despite the fact that it was obviously organised in anticipation of this event. Aimé Jacquet, benefactor of Lemerre’s legacy in 1998, and still national director of football, even refused to return from Korea to attend. Unofficially, Lemerre was given until July 5 to decide on his own future, a choice complicated by Zinedine Zidane’s more recent call for people to stop blaming Lemerre. “For two years we followed his line, we won and no one said anything. Two more years, we lose, and even though he has always followed the same line, he is criticised.”
The truth is that the team has offered so much to French football in the past years that few want to be involved in the necessary autopsy of defeat. The nearest thing to a tabloid newspaper in France, Le Parisien, has started in its own fashion, revealing alleged medical errors, prostitutes in the French team’s hotel, a captain too involved in sponsorship deals to lead his men, Thierry Henry falling out with Lemerre and the rest of the squad. Behind the scenes, though, it appears that only Michel Platini, recently appointed as vice-president of the FFF, is big enough to pull out the knives and use them for a proper post-mortem. He wants Lemerre’s head and expects a major part in choosing and attracting his replacement.
In many ways the spectacular manner of France’s fall may be a blessing. It will allow for a complete overhaul without necessarily changing the system behind the current crop of players. You may not of heard of, for example, Landreau, Boumsong, Mexes, Bréchet and Meriem yet, but they were all in the France team that reached the final of the Under-21 European championship. One generation of French footballers may be finished, but another is ready to take its place.
They probably won’t be ready for Euro 2004, but at the end of the next World Cup in Germany we may yet see millions of French supporters dancing in the streets again. Lemerre, famous for saying that “Whatever happens I will always be France’s first supporter”, may just be among them. Then again, he also said “If my hat knew for whom I voted, I would eat my hat,” so you never know.
From WSC 186 August 2002. What was happening this month