RSA 2 FRA 1: Go team!

FORGET your lightweight England nonsense – this is proper World Cup humiliation. France’s squad imploding amid obsence insults, training ground mutiny, statements, counter-statements and government condemnation has been the highlight of the World Cup so far.

France-Inter, the country’s answer to Radio 4, summed up the farce by running a compilation of soundbites from various squad members attempting to justify their behaviour, and played Yakety Sax – the theme from the Benny Hill Show – in the background.

As no less an authority on French football than Zinedine Zidane put it: “There are two things that will be remembered from this World Cup – the winner and the fact that the France team refused to train.” (I can only assume that Zidane has been watching the tournament wearing earplugs.)

France have had their crisis, and England theirs. One has been building for two years thanks to growing antipathy to the national coach, the other seems to have sprung from a combination of leg-weary players and cabin fever.

Ooh, that reminds me, actually. Shall we check out the mood in the England camp again? Yes, I think we shall.

I’m amazed, all things considered, that there aren’t more team crises during a World Cup. The intensity surrounding the competition would test the sanest of people.

Spending a month cooped up in the company of 20-odd other blokes would be a tall order even if you all got on really well. Throw in the frustrations and petty rivalries that are likely to spring up in a group over a period of time, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise if there’s eventually an eruption.

Being part of a World Cup squad, I have to admit, would be my idea of hell. Yes, it would be wonderful to play in the greatest sporting show on earth. But I couldn’t spend all that time with a large group without my head blowing off.

I should confess at this point that these large group camps are always something I’ve baulked at. For goodness sake, I pulled a sickie to get out of a Runshaw College ‘bonding’ trip to Pontins in Southport when I was 16.

(To the people who organised that trip: I’m sorry. I’m sure you did a fantastic job. But there must be better ways of getting to know your classmates or colleagues than building rafts out of twigs or whatever. Couldn’t we all have just gone for a meal instead?)

France’s squad did far, far better than Pontins for their squad accommodation (a five-star hotel, for goodness sake – what’s wrong with a Holiday Inn?) and still haven’t been able to hold themselves together.

They were all but out of the tournament even before this afternoon’s final group game against hosts South Africa in Bloemfontein. There was no Nicolas Anelka, long since sent home for pushing over the first domino by telling coach Raymond Domenech to “go fuck yourself, you son of a whore”. (Always a sign of tension when someone says that.) And there was no Patrice Evra, the man whose row with fitness coach Robert Duverne sparked the training ground walk-off.

Very soon, there was no Yohann Gourcuff either, sent off rather harshly for an alleged elbow on the wonderfully-named MacBeth Sibaya. (Gourcuff will, from now on, presumably refer to him as The Scottish Play Sibaya.)

By then, France were already a goal down, Bongani Khumalo shouldering in a corner which keeper Hugo Lloris – who is very good most of the time – missed by about three feet. When Katlego Mphela bundled in a second, South Africa had half-a-chance of going through.

But only half-a-chance, even at 2-0. The cynical among us had put the other Group A game, between Mexico and Uruguay, down for a draw – on the basis that a point would definitely send both teams through. But even when Luis Suarez headed Uruguay in front, Mexico could still rely on their goal difference, which was still two better than South Africa’s.

When Florent Malouda scored France’s first goal of the tournament with 20 minutes to go in Bloemfontein, the gap increased to an insurmountable three. It ensured that South Africa would become the first host nation eliminated from the World Cup at the group stage. And we are only on day 12 of the tournament’s 32. It seems too soon.

Not too soon for France, though, who surely can’t wait to get home – if only to get a bit of respite from each other. For Domenech, that respite will be permanent, with Laurent Blanc taking over as national coach. It’s hard to imagine that too many of his players will miss him.


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