In the high pressure environment of a World Cup tournament, poor on-field results can lead to behind-the-scenes fireworks — and for this year's French team, the pyrotechnics have been spectacular. After two dismal outings, the 1998 World Cup champs are not only on the verge of being eliminated in the first round, but of becoming a national embarrassment. (Watch the French team refuse to practice.) Here's a guide to France's ongoing soccer "soap opera":
How did all this start?
After a disappointing 0-0 tie in their first game with Uruguay, France was expected to step on the gas in their match against Mexico last Thursday. Instead, at halftime the French found themselves still scoreless. Raymond Domenech, the French coach, attempted to rouse his team in the locker room, but found himself drawn into a confrontation with striker Nicolas Anelka.
What did Anelka say?
In response to a piece of criticism, Anelka reportedly unleashed an "expletive-filled tirade" at his coach (French newspaper L'Equipe reported he said, "Go f--- yourself you son of a whore"). Domenech responded by substituting Anelka for another player. Mexico dominated France in the second half, and the 2-0 drubbing means France will likely not make the cut to the 16-team second round.
What happened after the game?
After his outburst was reported in French newspapers, Anelka refused to apologize to Domenech and was promptly dismissed from the French team. Anelka's fellow players then refused to train in protest at the striker's dismissal. In scenes caught on camera, captain Patrice Evra argued with a fitness coach, and the team director resigned in front of watching reporters. "What has happened is a scandal for the federation, for the French team and for the whole country," said Jean-Louis Valentin, the team director. "It is unacceptable.''
Who's to blame?
Most blame Domenech, the eccentric coach known to choose players based on their star signs (he is reportedly distrustful of Scorpios). There is a widespread perception that Domenech is "incapable of managing his players," says Tony Karon at Time, but this is a new low — he has "created a divided, clannish atmosphere" rife with "personal pettiness and surging resentment." But Anelka should share some of the blame, says Kristian Lin at the Fort Worth Weekly. He has changed teams eight times in 15 years, mainly because he has "pissed off coaches everywhere he's gone." Hence his U.K. nickname, "Le Sulk."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has reportedly instructed his sports minister to defuse the row for the sake of French pride. Both Domenech and Anelka are unlikely to figure in France's future international soccer plans. As for the rest of the squad? "With the next round such a long shot at this point," says Scott Thomas Beauchamp at Deadspin, "maybe they should just all shrug their shoulders, light up Gauloises, and take solace in the ultimate meaninglessness of it all."