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.
I stumbled across your book in Waterstones when kitting out my kids with books for the summer hols. (It was in a 3 for 2!)
I’m not a great reader, but am motoring on through The Secret Life of France as I journey on the Tube each day, before my first holiday trip to France in a while in a few weeks time.
It’s also been quite interesting as a bit of insight into the manner of a particular French client (Parisian).
Congratulations on producing such a readable and amusing tome. I’ve already spread the word to some friends planning to relocate over there.
Hope life’s good over there (in the Cevennes)?
Lucy Wadham, thank’s a million for your book. I hope it will be translated into French soon, if not sooner. I can’t wait to pass it on to French friends.
A native of Glasgow, I moved to London at 18, where I lived for 6 years, then moved on to New York, stayed 22 years, then left for Lyon in 1986. Needless to say Culture Shock is no stranger to me.
Donc, right on sister. When’s the next book coming out?
God bless, g.h.
I am so glad to have discovered your blog, I think this is perfectly put! I will never forget the Zidane incident, disgraceful!
In one sense the spectacular fall outs provide so much cover for the mundane reality of under performing in a relatively straight forward group. But don’t forget there was plenty of back biting and bickering amongst the players themselves as well as the antagonism between the players and Domenech and then the fitness coach.
So, whereas you could define a peculiar type of heroism and dignity in finding an excuse for Zidane’s headbutt, this saga felt much more like the type of fall out you might witness amongst sales people at an estate agents clamouring for their last bonuses in the last few days before the company folds.
As the supporter of a team who consistently and predictably disappointed at every stage, even in our one victory against Slovenia, I can at least be grateful of the fact that it will be France who will be remembered for royally and spectacularly mucking up from the word go. ‘We were bad, but we weren’t that bad’. I guess this is an indication of our (Englend’s) acute fear of failure too; always ready to point out someone who is one worse than you.
Henri handles the ball against Ireland, gets villified, is partly marginalized by the Manager, becomes an integral part of a players revolt and gets an audience with the President: “Come in Thierry and tell me all about it”. Some journey.
One very clear unequivocal statement, probably replete with English righteous indignation:
Domenech refusing the hand shake from Carlos Alberto Parreira, the South African Manager, was the single most disgraceful act of anyone involved in the World cup. (To date. Look out for Maradona).