France are the new Holland: squabbling

In 2008, Leos were in Raymond Domenech’s line of fire. Since April this year, it’s been any footballer with an over-inflated sense of self worth. Interviewed in L’Équipe barely two months ago, the 58-year-old said of his players: “They must be clever and forget their ego to realise that the only thing that matters is the team, not them. If they don’t understand that I will need a gun.”

If the reports coming out of the French camp are correct, it’s time for Ray to unholster his sidearm and channel Michael Douglas’s character from Falling Down. Domenech’s decision to drop Florent Malouda to the bench for Friday night’s opening game against Uruguay was sadly all too predictable even if the pair looked to have patched up their differences, which first came to light two years ago.

According to Friday’s edition of L’Équipe, Malouda had been a little over zealous in training, diving recklessly into tackles that could have injured one of his team-mates on the eve of the finals. Domenech sent Patrice Évra over to calm ‘Flo’ down, but it didn’t work. A few seconds later, Domenech raised his voice and Malouda’s place in the starting line-up was gone.

Saturday’s Le Parisien had a different chain of events, claiming that the storm clouds first gathered a little earlier in the week. The first clash was apparently on Tuesday when Domenech asked Malouda to sit back on the left-hand side of midfield in France’s 4-3-3 and help out the team’s very own Ron Burgundy – anchorman Jérémy Toulalan – while Yoann Gourcuff was given license to roam further forward.

The Chelsea player didn’t just sulk. He stropped and is said to have asked: “Why me? I scored 15 goals for Chelsea this season and I’m a creator. Other players fit that profile.”

Le Parisien understands it was then that Domenech decided to replace Malouda with Abou Diaby. Call it spiteful, but Domenech had found an excuse to start the Arsenal midfielder, not that he needed one anyway. But starting him in place of Malouda never seemed on the cards.

As The French Connection reported a few days ago, Diaby was in line for a place in the starting XI after coming off the bench to good effect in each of France’s three warm-up matches.

"Ooh, a text from the boss... oh."

Sidney Govou was supposed to be the one to make way so the 24-year-old could play on the left of midfield with Malouda in front of him occupying the position he plays for Chelsea - providing, that is, Franck Ribéry also accepted to move over to the right of France’s attack.

Given Ribéry’s distaste for playing there, which he revealed to France Football in February, Domenech and some squad members were apparently pushing to drop Gourcuff for Diaby instead. Malouda’s place simply wasn’t up for discussion. He had become indispensable. Why should he have to play out of position? Only last week, Malouda said of his relationship with Domenech: “If we had a problem, it was a problem of personality. He knows me well and he knows how to use me.”

The 29-year-old was referring to the seven-month ‘ban’ Domenech supposedly imposed on him between November 2008 and June 2009 after he reacted badly to being played as a defensive midfielder against Romania in a World Cup qualifier.

“I am not a clown, or a puppet,” Malouda said at the time. “He took me for somebody else. I don’t wish to talk of him or with him. He has a tendency to create conflicts and me, I never like to bring on conflict.” The former Lyon star proved that last night when after France’s sterile draw with Uruguay, he refused to have another crack at Domenech.

“It was a defensive decision. I learnt of it at 4pm before the pre-match meal. It didn’t stop me from digesting it, but there was genuine disappointment,” Malouda revealed.

“I think that it has nothing to do with what happened in training yesterday. It might seem surprising, but it was a defensive decision. That is how the coach presented it to me.” He then added: “I am not here to drag my feet. I have the desire to do well for this team.”

Despite Malouda’s apparent willingness to take Domenech’s decision on the chin, there is a sense that he has lit the blue-touch paper running through a French camp primed to explode. No matter how you look at it, part, if not all, of the blame for the smell of cordite lingering around Knysna emanates from Domenech’s questionable decision-making.

The flash points are everywhere. For example, how long will Thierry Henry accept a role on the bench when - as L’Équipe reported on Wednesday - Évra, Gallas and even Anelka would like him in the starting XI?

Can Gallas put aside his visible disappointment at not being named captain, which led to a press silence?

And how would Ribéry react to being asked to sacrifice himself and play on the right for the good of the team, as Patrick Vieira recently suggested?

"I'm bored. I'm the chairman of the bored."

Couple this week’s events with the fracture between young and old at Euro 2008 - when Gallas took action against Samir Nasri’s decision to sit in Henry’s place on the team bus - and it’s reasonable to conclude that France are the new Holland when it comes to major tournament in-fighting.

The potential may be there on paper, but the reality is bleak. Domenech may have got France to the final in 2006, but his record of just one win in the seven group stage matches that he has been involved in does not bode well for them.

Just like in 2006, Domenech used a different system from the one he deployed in the warm-up matches last night and got a 0-0 draw. But in 2006, he had Zinedine Zidane and, as Vincent Duluc noted in Saturday’s L’Équipe, from what we saw in Cape Town, his successor was not in South Africa.

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