To the outside world, the behaviour of the French football team in South Africa was shocking, outrageous, unfathomable… Anelka’s outburst, the team’s strike, Domenech’s toe-curling indecision – all of it has contributed to the vision of France as a broken society, prone to infantilism and mindless rebellion; a nation whose once glorious revolutionary heritage is turned to ashes.
There’s also, understandably perhaps, a certain pleasure, discernible in the British press in particular, at the unfolding moral decline of French football. What these commentators don’t seem to understand is that their schadenfreude can never match the special kind of pleasure the French feel when they experience failure. Because, despite what so many Englishmen believe, the French are hardwired for failure in a way that we British are not and so when the fall comes, as they know it inevitably will, their philosophers rush to the recording studio to put their heads in their hands and together, with the whole nation, they utter the cathartic mantra: through our fault, our fault, through our most grievous fault…
For the French this is not just the story of a bunch of spoiled, overpaid yobs behaving badly abroad. This is tragedy, played out on a national scale. And the story doesn’t begin in South Africa with Nicolas Anelka’s defiance, or even, as many have suggested, with Thierry Henry’s handball, the foul which sent an already guilt-laden France into this World Cup. Like all good tragedies the hubris was there, embedded in the glory days. The moral decline everyone is decrying was set in motion by this dynasty’s all-time hero, Zinedine Zidane. For surely it was Zizou’s momentary loss of control, the shocking headbutt delivered to Materazzi in the last World Cup final that led to the fall. In that moment all the rigour and precision and grandeur began to leak out of the French game.
Luckily the French are wedded to the tragic view, so they not only knew where it would end, but felt relieved when the end came and they could all chant their Mea Culpas and thus cleansed, start afresh.