KNYSNA - Once famous for individual brilliance and midfield wizardry, France are in the process of establishing themselves as world champions at the fine art of internal squabbling.
The ghosts of Euro 2008, where a rotten atmosphere marred a campaign that ended after the group stage, have come back to haunt the former world champions on the pitches of South Africa, with another early exit now looming large.
A report that troubled striker Nicolas Anelka had insulted coach Raymond Domenech at halftime of a 2-0 defeat by Mexico on Thursday in Polokwane was the latest sign that life in the France squad was ruined by bickering and scandals.
The former enfant terrible of French soccer, Anelka has been more interested at playing with the ball than passing it to his team mates at this World Cup, providing a symbol for France's failure to behave as a team on and off the pitch.
His crude remarks shouted at the unpopular Domenech, according to French sports daily L'Equipe, came after the coach criticised his attitude on the pitch before deciding to take him off for the second half.
Since the start of their preparations, the France players had insisted that, unlike two years ago, they were united and desperate to fight together to heal their wounded pride.
A reported rift between the youngsters and the more seasoned players was apparently the problem at Euro 2008 and could explain why Domenech left players such as Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri out of his squad for this World Cup.
"We can feel that the group is uniting," defender Sebastien Squillaci said during France's preparations. "I wouldn't say there was a bad atmosphere in 2008 but it's true that there was some discrepancy between the generations. It's different here."
Reports of little groups hardly talking to each other soon surfaced, however, notably with French media suggestions that playmaker Yoann Gourcuff was isolated and had a difficult relationship with Franck Ribery.
"We're not all the best of friends, that's normal, but that does not translate on to the pitch," midfielder Jeremy Toulalan, a close friend of Gourcuff, said when asked about those reports.
"For instance, when I'm playing with Yoann, I'm not going to pass him the ball more just because we get on well," he added.
The Anelka incident, if true, indicates another problem, this time between the players and Domenech, who has appeared to improvise so far, hesitating between two tactical systems and two playmakers, Gourcuff and Ribery.
For the match against Mexico, Domenech made a choice by dumping the quiet, elegant Gourcuff to hand over the playmaking duties to the loud, energetic Ribery.
According to some observers, Domenech might have picked the wrong side of France's footballing culture.
"Ribery ? One day the mistake was made to say he was the team's brains and since, he has believed it," Just Fontaine, who scored a record 13 goals for France at the 1958 World Cup, told local newspaper La Depeche du Midi.comments