JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Before the World Cup started, you could have gotten short odds that the French would go home as champions.
On Sunday one of Europe’s top bookmakers started taking bets the French would go home before their final match.
The bizarre turn of events, which has been brewing for years, bubbled over Sunday at the team’s training camp just east of Cape Town with a series of occurrences that started with a conversation between captain Patrice Evra and coach Raymond Domenech and ended with the humiliated Domenech reading a players’ statement to the media condemning the French federation’s decision to kick forward Nicolas Anelka off the team a day earlier.
In between, fitness coach Robert Duverne stormed out of camp, team director Jean-Louis Valentin angrily announced his resignation and the entire team, after filing off the bus for practice, filed back in again without so much as kicking a ball.
A World Cup finalist four years ago and a World Cup champion in 1998, France – the No. 9 team in the world rankings – is winless, goalless and virtually hopeless heading into Tuesday’s group finale with South Africa.
“French football is in a catastrophic situation,” said Christian Teinturier, vice president of the French soccer federation.
The roots reach back at least as far as the 2008 European Championship, where France went out in the first round without winning a game. The French didn’t even qualify for last summer’s Confederations Cup – a tournament it has won twice in the last decade – and may not have made it to the World Cup either if not for Thierry Henry’s undetected hand-ball that led to the winning goal in a playoff with Ireland.
Then, less than two months before the World Cup, the team was embroiled in more controversy when star players Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou were alleged to have paid a 17-year-old girl for sex.
Add to that a World Cup warmup campaign that included a tie with Tunisia and a loss to China, and Domenech’s decision to bench standout Florent Malouda for France’s opener, and the team’s implosion Sunday, while not expected, was hardly surprising.
It all started after Domenech and Evra had a private chat on the bus shortly after the team arrived at its training facility. After exiting the bus, Evra approached Duverne, who was preparing the field for the workout, and the two became engaged in a heated discussion.
Domenech tried to intervene, but Duverne angrily stalked off, throwing his World Cup credential to the ground. The players returned to the bus, drawing the curtains so as not to be seen by about 200 fans who had come to watch the practice.
But wait, there’s more.
Next it was Valentin who stormed off, shouting that he was “ashamed” of his players and announcing his resignation before driving away.
“It’s a scandal for the French, for the young people here. It’s a scandal for the federation and the French team,” Valentin was quoted as saying.