We Americans have enjoyed teasing the French almost as much as the rest of the world loves to tease the United States, though that has died down since President Obama took over and we were able to stop replacing the word “French” with “Freedom”. Ah, but now the French have given us a whole other reason to look at them askance after expletive laden tirades, refusals to practice, and a general lack of effort got them kicked out of the World Cup in the first round with a whopping 1 point.
Of course, perhaps that is a bit harsh. After all, France was entering this World Cup with a lame duck coach, Raymond Domenech, whose contract was set to expire after these South Africa games. The team was assembled with an assortment of France’s best players, despite the fact that they were largely prima donnas who had experience in kicking coaches off of their clubs in the Premier League. And I suppose that Domenech made a number of poor decisions that led to a lack of faith that the nation’s Football Federation had in him. There were problems with this team long before the World Cup, requiring a missed handball call by Thierry Henry against Ireland to make it into competition.
But even if this team was not talented enough to make it to the next round (questionable, given the long-standing success of the French team and the sheer concentration of talent on the roster), their behavior was even worse and will bring back traditional stereotypes of French behavior to outsiders the same way American behavior abroad deepens stereotypes about this country. For instance, when in doubt, strike. The French National Team sat, refusing to practice after Domenech kicked a player off the team for insubordination and allegedly referring to him as a “son of a whore.” Granted, the player was Nicholas Anelka, one of the team’s best players, but do you think any player could get away with that in a U.S. professional league? Would John Harbaugh let Ray Rice refer to him that way and still let him play? Of course not- at the very least he would be benched. Perhaps kicking him off the team was a tad harsh, but after Anelka’s refusal to apologize, he didn’t have any choice.
Moreover, the team thought enough of Anelka to refuse to practice out of protest. Even if players don’t agree with the coach, I cannot think of an example of such an organized and stalwart obstinacy by a team, especially one without a moral leg to stand on. What these players didn’t understand was that the World Cup is about more than just the team- they may not have cared whether they won or lost in South Africa (and given their effort against the host country, they didn’t), but they aren’t just playing for their team or their fans. They are playing for their country. Everything else takes a back seat when national pride is on the line, or at least it should. The French team should have taken a step back and considered not just their friend on the team, or their personal dislike of the coach, but about the people at home who were rooting for them and counting on them to win.
But they didn’t, and they are already back home. The same selfishness that Zinedine Zidane showed in headbutting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final that helped Italy win was on display on another continent four years later. Instead of rising above their adversity, instead of banding together as a team, instead of representing their country proudly, the French succumbed to another stereotype. They surrendered.