As it always seems to do with France, this World Cup adventure began with an embarrassing public row.
In an effort to tamp down the turmoil that has plagued their setup in recent years, manager Didier Deschamps left one of the nation’s boldface names, Samir Nasri, off the team.
Nasri is a talented winger and a divisive twerp who has the knack of reducing every side he is part of to less than the sum of its parts.
“When he is not one of the starters, he is not happy. And I can assure you that it shows, that others in the group feel it,” Deschamps said.
Understandably, Nasri was not best pleased at the decision. A little less understandably, he sat back as his English girlfriend went bananas on social media.
“[Expletive] France and [expletive] Deschamps!” Anara Atanes tweeted. “What a [expletive] manager!”
Deschamps responded by threatening to sue her.
Days later, France’s best player on paper – Franck Ribery – withdrew from the team because of back problems. This kicked off a corrosive to-and-fro in the press between the player and the team’s doctor, who suggested Ribery’s condition could be easily treated if he weren’t afraid of needles.
This all seemed to lead disastrously back to the 2010 World Cup, when the French had their most high-profile outburst since the Bastille.
Their manager at the time, Raymond Domenech, was that unusual leadership combo – an authoritarian flake. Infamously, Domenech subverted a live TV interview at Euro 2008 to propose marriage to his girlfriend. Perhaps unwisely, he chose to do it immediately after his team had been gut-wrenchingly eliminated.
In South Africa, all the bile surfaced. Striker Nicolas Anelka berated Domenech in the crudest possible terms during a team meeting. News of the confrontation leaked, and Domenech tossed Anelka from the squad.
The next day, captain Patrice Evra accused a fitness coach of ratting out Anelka to the press. They began to fight. The rest of the players, who’d been preparing to practice, responded by staging a walkoff. Since there was nowhere to walk off to, they hid on the team bus with the curtains drawn.
Someone delivered a letter to Domenech. It was left to the manager – the target of its contents – to read it aloud to the squad. Cameras captured all of this. Things went poorly thereafter.
What has occurred since then is nearly unique in international football. Rather than building a new squad, the French have been steadily destroying an old and still extant one.
Describing what happened in South Africa as a “collective cataclysm,” midfielder Mathieu Valbuena told the Guardian: “I thought it would be the end for the 23 players who were there.”
It very nearly was. Only four men from that 2010 roster have returned – an extraordinary rate of turnover. Valbuena is one of them (notably, along with Evra).
They’re equally talented. Few countries reliably produce as many elite players as France. But they’re young and unblooded.
As such, they came here as a rebuilding team. The goal was to improve ahead of Euro 2016, which will be held in France.
And then, having freed themselves from their past, their future just started to come together.
They annihilated (terrible) Honduras and (a pretty good) Switzerland by an aggregate 8-2 in their first pair of games. They are the only team here that has looked truly unstoppable for long stretches.
On Wednesday, they rested five starters and still dominated Ecuador in an entertaining nil-nil draw. They’ll face Nigeria in the first knockout game, en route toward Germany in the quarters.
From the vantage point of this moment, they must be considered the tournament’s form favourites.
All this circles back to the metaphysical concept of team chemistry, and the mythology of the inspirational leader.
Having viewed a fair few teams from up close, I’ve never believed much in either. Top players in all sports are spurred by a much more dependable inducement than the bonds of brotherhood – self interest. Many successful teams have individually hated each other’s guts (every single iteration of the Netherlands leaps to mind). Many poor ones have all been in each others’ wedding parties.
As for the concept of the man who binds them all together, I’m also leery. No coach in the world does less than your average football manager. At the very biggest clubs, many don’t set the tactics or train the players or, often, even talk to them. They have assistants who do that. At the international level, they do even less. All the boss is responsible for is taking the credit or the blame.
This is why so few managerial names ring out in World Cup history. The men in charge had next to nothing to do with the winning.
Based on early returns, Deschamps is the exception. He has the legend of ’98 behind him, during which he was more than the captain of a side that won a world championship.
He’s the link between the last great French team and now, but untainted by the rot that set in in between. How he managed to maintain control of the collective, while at the same time disassembling and reconstituting it, would make for an interesting seminar on management.
If France continues this unlikely run, Deschamps will have done something unique in the history of this tournament – been the most valuable man on a team, while never having played.