BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa – The referee waved a red card at the French player, ejecting him from the game for a nasty elbow foul. His coach buried his head in his hands.
Soon after, South Africa put the French out of their misery with a 2-1 victory, and France’s World Cup humiliation was complete.
Seen as undeserving competitors even before the tournament began, France is going home early — winless and the laughingstock of the soccer world.
Even in Paris, fans who gathered near the Eiffel Tower to watch the match on video screens booed their own team and cheered for South Africa.
In November, France made it to the World Cup over Ireland when a referee failed to see Thierry Henry double-slap a ball before teammate William Gallas scored. With no video replay, soccer fans around the world complained that France had made it to the sport’s biggest stage by cheating.
As 1998 World Cup champions and runner-up in 2006, Les Bleus churn out top-quality players who compete for Europe’s biggest leagues and had reason to believe they would at least get beyond the first round.
Instead, their multimillionaire players embarrassed themselves and their nation by rebelling against their coach and the French Football Federation, even taking the extraordinary step of going on strike. The soap opera disputes in the luxurious French camp grew to such dramatic proportions that President Nicolas Sarkozy got involved to try to limit damage to France’s reputation, not just in soccer but in the wider world, too.
His sports minister, sent to hammer some sense into the rebels, reduced players to tears on the eve of their final game against South Africa, telling them: “You have tarnished the image of France.”
Playing less than 24 hours after that scolding at their hotel in Bloemfontein, France’s players roused themselves in spurts Tuesday, but not enough to secure a win that might have started to make amends for their off-field behavior.
Instead, France failed to advance at the World Cup for the first time since 2002.
The match was 25 minutes old when the referee ejected midfielder Yoann Gourcuff for an elbow that felled Macbeth Sibaya of South Africa like a woodman’s ax and caused France coach Raymond Domenech to bury his head in his hands.
Reduced to 10 men after Gourcuff was sent off with 65 minutes to play, the French suffered their second defeat in three matches at this World Cup. It also had a 0-0 draw with Uruguay.
“I’m sickened, disgusted,” said Alain Le Prince, in a crowd of thousands who watched the match in Paris. “Everyone is laughing at us.”
For France, the defining image of the last World Cup was of Zinedine Zidane walking off the field in the final against Italy after being expelled for head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi. The defining image this time was even more ignominious: France’s players sulking on their bus, curtains drawn, on Sunday, refusing to join a public training session in front of 200 local fans, in a show of support for their teammate Nicolas Anelka, who cursed out Domenech at halftime in France’s 2-0 loss to Mexico on Thursday and was sent back to France.
Convinced that Anelka was unfairly treated, France’s other players responded with their wildcat strike – an act described as “an aberration, an imbecility, a stupidity without name” by Domenech on the feverish and emotional eve of the must-win game against the South Africans.
In the end, the squabbling in France’s squad almost completely overshadowed the match. Some players walked out of the stadium grave-faced and silent after the defeat and climbed back on their bus with the words, “Together for a new dream in blue” written in its side.
Others seized the chance to give their side of the story and even say sorry, among them defender Patrice Evra. He was benched by Domenech and stripped of the captaincy for Tuesday’s game.
“This apology should have been made yesterday, but my coach stopped me doing it as a captain, and that hurts even more,” Evra said. “The whole of France needs to have an explanation for this disaster. It’s not the time to give them, but I will personally give them ... what I went through, just the truth, as quickly as possible.”
Speaking for the other side, French Football Federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes said the “shame that football brought to France” was “far worse than poor results.”
“What upsets me the most is the psychodrama,” he said. “For me, 50 years of values crumbled.”
The match was Domenech’s last in six years as coach. His replacement by Laurent Blanc, a veteran of France’s 1998 cup-winning side, was announced before this competition.
One of Domenech’s last acts as coach was to refuse the traditional handshake with his counterpart for South Africa, Carlos Alberto Parreira. At a postmatch news conference, Domenech refused to explain his act. But it typified the poisonous atmosphere in the French camp.
“The first word that comes to my lips is sadness,” he said. “I am in pain, in distress.”