France surrender meekly as South Africa go down fighting
June 22, 2010 1 Comment
South Africa 2 France 1
France, the ninth-ranked team in the world, are out of the 2010 World Cup.
The last time a French player used his head at a major tournament, it did not end well. Zinedine Zidane was sent off for head-butting Marco Materazzi in the chest, and France lost the 2006 World Cup final on penalties to Italy. And while they have ‘handled’ tense situations since, their collective performances have generally resembled those of headless chickens.
On paper, this team should have cruised through Group A with plenty to spare. Unfortunately, the tournament is played on grass not paper, and an ignominious 2-1 defeat against the hosts South Africa means that France are winless in six games at major tournaments since Zidane’s sending off and international retirement – and on their way home to lick their wounds, most of which have been self-inflicted.
Both South Africa’s first half goals in this game came as a result of calamitous French defending. First Hugo Lloris charged off his line to punch away a corner, only to miss by a distance, allowing the ball to fall to the unmarked Bongani Khumalo to head into the unguarded net. Then Bacary Sagna allowed left back Tsepo Malilela to ghost behind him, and after Abou Diaby had failed to clear his cross Katlego Mphela was on hand to tap the ball in.
In between the two goals, France had been harshly reduced to ten men when Yoan Gourcuff was shown a straight red card for using his elbow in an aerial challenge with MacBeth Sabaya. It was a poor decision, with replays showing Gourcuff’s elbow was neither actively swung nor raised particularly high, but it is exactly the sort of call which goes against you when everything else is going wrong.
With news that Luis Suarez had put Uruguay ahead against Mexico shortly before half-time in the other Group A match, what had at first appeared a distant and forlorn hope of qualification suddenly became a realistic probability. (At that stage, two more goals for Uruguay or two more for South Africa would have put the hosts through; a goal for each would have required the drawing of lots between themselves and Mexico.)
South Africa continued to hammer on the door throughout the second half, but substitute Florent Malouda‘s 70th-minute tap-in for France muted a crowd who knew their hopes had just been dealt a mortal blow. Although they kept running all the way to the final whistle, the home side visibly tired thereafter and never really looked like getting the goals they required.
At least they will depart their own tournament in a blaze of vuvuzelas and without shame, despite being the first host nation ever to fail to qualify for the knockout phase. They always looked to be some way short of the quality required to reach the last 16, but Carlos Alberto Parreira‘s side have won many friends with their effort and enthusiasm.
Which is more than can be said for the French. There is a cancer running through the veins of their national team, as we have seen repeatedly throughout this tournament. First Malouda was dropped after disagreeing with coach Raymond Domenech. Then Nicolas Anelka was sent home after an, ahem, heated exchange with Domenech during last week’s defeat to Mexico; the entire squad subsequently refused to train. Captain Patrice Evra was relegated to the bench for his role in the revolt. Even on the field, the team’s stars such as Franck Ribéry have been conspicuous by their under-performance throughout their three games.
Incoming coach Laurent Blanc now faces a tough challenge as he considers a Euro 2012 qualifying campaign which commences in ten weeks’ time. His squad is riven by discord, and he will have to prepare for life without senior players like Anelka, Thierry Henry and William Gallas, who are unlikely to still be around for the Euros. Not an enviable task!
It is not that France do not possess individual talent; they do, in abundance. It is more that they lack a squad with any kind of collective spirit, one which has devoted more energy to fighting each other than they have to defeating their opponents.
Tomorrow afternoon: England, another side unexpectedly scrapping for their lives with publicly-exposed internal divisions (although nothing nearly as bad as the French). The winner of England’s group could face Mexico should they reach the quarter-final; the runner-up, Uruguay. Neither potential opponent should fill Fabio Capello‘s side with fear; like France, England’s greatest enemy is potentially themselves.