June 27, 2010

A French Betrayal

On Tuesday before the world cup match against South Africa, French defender William Gallas sang the La Marseilles with gusto. 'Come children of the fatherland, our day of glory has arrived', he sang. Over the next ninety minutes on the pitch, he looked as if he couldn’t care less. In the days leading up to the match, he was one of the fabulous five that led the player revolt against coach Raymond Domenech.

Of the others, Frank Ribery was a shadow of his Bayern Munich self that commands an annual salary of ten million euros. Thierry Henry was struggling to find a place for himself on the scorecard in the little time he got on the field. Nikolas Anelka, France's enfant terrible, was banned for dissent, and the leader of the revolt, and captain of the team, Patrik Evra wasn't even allowed on the field. These five, also happen to be France's best set of players currently. Hardly the formula to win a tournament, wouldn't you think?

But the pity was not to see them struggle in vain to stamp their authority on the pitch. The pity was to see them look as it didn't matter whether they did, in what will perhaps be the last big stage for many of them. Sad it was that they gave up on winning well before their ninety minutes of play were done. Disgusting it was to see them forget that even if not for themselves, they owed it to the French fans and to football in general, to not take the chance to wear the national jersey at the highest stage lightly.

And to think that a lot of us mentioned France among possible winners barely two weeks ago. But a top billing takes you only so far. Being favourites is not the same as winning. Ultimately its something from within that brings the cup to the lip. Like Vince Lombardi, that legendary American rugby coach used to tell his wards, 'winning is not everything, the will to win is everything'.

Roger Federer is at his menacing best when he is a set down. He rarely loses an important match in straight sets. Brazil has never failed to qualify for the second round in a world cup for 44 years. If they did, they'd probably be massacred back home, you never know. The only tournament the Australian cricket team has lost in recent years is the T20 world cups, a format they still don’t seem to have adjusted to.

But for France, faced with the prospect of yet another humiliating exit, they looked more disoriented than ever. The sight of Djibrael Cisse, shaking his head and walking away from the scene of Joann Djorkoff's red card, shaking his head would exemplify the emotion that a football pitch would be the last place most of the team would rather be that day.

France was a team that always belied reputations. They followed up their 3rd placed finish in the 1986 Mexico world cup with no shows in the next two editions. They failed to qualify in spite of having all time greats like Eric Cantona and Papin in their ranks. In 1998, when they returned to the world cup finals, they took home the crown. Four years later, another first round exit, and humiliation, playing with a team that was too overage for modern day sport. Then in 2006, France made the finals, losing to Italy only in a penalty shootout. And finally, now in 2010, another ignominous defeat.

Is it just inconsistency, or is there more? You can't put the blame on 'out of form' players. Olympique Lyon, French domestic champions had a heady run in the European Champions League last season, reaching the semi final in May with a squad that makes up almost half the numbers of the national squad. And in any case, they were against South Africa, which boasts of not more than one one world class player.

It couldnt be bad coaching either. It was the same coach that took them all the way to the finals last time around. It was surely not the austerity drive back home. The French team has had one of the best facilities among all the teams in South Africa this month.

Discipline is something champions seem to be born with. Well, actually, Discipline is just what separates the champions from the 'insanely talented but perennial under achievers'. Discipline is the difference between Pele, with his 3 world cup titles and over a thousand goals, and Diego Maradona, whose accomplishments cannot hold a candle to the extent of his genius. Discipline is what brings Italy consistently to football glory, in spite of never being a fancied contender.

And a ludicrous lack of discipline is what did France in, with players taking up the cudgels against their own coach, even refusing to turn up for training. Nikolas Anelka might have been right, but that doesn’t justify his behaviour.

If the French are still confused about how to tackle a coach they can’t adjust with, they only need to look across the Atlantic. Diego Maradona might have been the most reviled of coaches last year, notwithstanding his footballing prowess. But over the last few months, both coach and team stepped down from their pedestals, tried to understand each other, and worked for the common good. Today Argentina is the most convincing of the 32 teams playing, if not the only one.

But even discipline can't make up for the lack of inspiration. And for France, they lost when they decided that everything was going against them this time, and they wouldn’t win anyway. But look through the annals of sport, and you will find legendary stories of teams and individuals who fought to the finish just because they couldn’t accept defeat, and eventually won. Again,’ like Lombardi said, It isn’t about winning. It’s about aching to win!

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