Red cards and scandals only part of the problem for Ribery

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Dancing on the edge of a volcano. That was L’Équipe’s assessment of French football last week.

While liquid hot magma and the odd cloud of ash spewed out of Iceland, other far graver things were creeping out of the woodwork on L’Hexagone, threatening to bring French football to a grinding halt.

The revelations that four prominent members of the French national team were cited in connection with a Paris-based investigation into underage prostitution made headlines across the world, bringing unprecedented scrutiny on Franck Ribéry in particular for reasons that are by now well documented.

Tempting though it is to chew over the juicy bits of a sad and sordid scandal, the French Connection would much rather spend its time reassessing Ribéry the player rather than Ribéry the man.

After all, while his sending off against Lyon last Wednesday was predictable if not in some way understandable given the circumstances in which he went into the game, it was also the latest episode in the dethronement of Kaiser Franck. Indeed, some would even say Ribéry’s crown has by now passed to Arjen Robben.

"What next...?"

But how did this happen? When Ribéry joined Bayern in a €25 million transfer from Marseille three years ago, he did more than merely justify his price tag, he was one of those rare footballers who was worth the admission fee on his own, putting bums on seats like a Broadway star.

He scored 16 goals and made 17 assists in his first season in Germany, inspiring Bayern to the league and cup double. No wonder Franz Beckenbauer likened signing Ribéry to winning the lottery.

Bavaria had a new darling, a loveable rogue who could prank the likes of Oliver Kahn and even crash the team bus on a winter tour of the Middle East and still get away with it.

All he had to do was smile his crooked smile and keep putting in mesmerising match-winning performances.

All that changed last summer, though, when the darling became the diva, and started dilly-dallying over his future amid interest from those spendaholics at Real Madrid.

German tabloid Bild grew so tired of Ribéry going all doe-eyed whenever Madrid were mentioned that they coined a new nickname for him: Mr Bullsh*t.

Of course, Ribéry could have won the media over again by letting his football do the talking, but the 27-year-old was spending more time in the treatment room than on the pitch.

Blisters, swollen toes and acute tendonitis in his left knee have restricted him to just eight starting appearances in the Bundesliga this season.

And it’s not as if he has been quiet on the sidelines either. In September when Bayern were struggling down in eighth, he told L’Équipe: “It’s important that you have faith in the coach, but with van Gaal it’s complicated. This is the first time that my contact with a coach is not positive. There’s not much feeling between us.”

Not content with setting just one cat among the pigeons, Ribéry broke out an entire kitten farm, pointing out to Raymond Domenech on more than one occasion that he produces his best football on the left-hand side.

"No Franck, Henry stays- he's the only person left less popular than me!"

In doing so, he showed little in the way of respect towards France’s captain, Thierry Henry, as that is where he plays for Les Bleus. 

So with one year left on his contract at Bayern, L’Équipe felt entitled to ask whether any of Europe’s elite club sides, let alone Real Madrid, would still be interested in signing him.

Marca tried to answer that question last Tuesday, when one of their hacks wrote: “The scandal diminishes to an almost definitive extent” the prospect of Ribéry moving to the Santiago Bernabéu.

Ironically, though, one could argue that Robben is the biggest threat to Ribéry’s hopes of joining Madrid. The Dutchman was supposedly a ‘down payment’ for Ribéry last summer. But Robben’s success could make signing Ribéry an embarrassment to Florentino Perez, even if it’s for less than the €65m quoted last year.

Robben has scored 20 goals this season compared with Ribéry’s six, proving decisive in the Champions League, the competition Perez craves the most. Now he is the one being mentioned in the same breath as Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, not Ribéry.

“In a week or 10 days, when the talks have been held, I will know what the situation is,” Ribéry said when asked about his future on April 15. That timeframe expired yesterday and it’s unrealistic to think that negotiations weren’t affected by recent events.

In the meantime, things are likely to get worse for Ribéry before they get better, as UEFA’s disciplinary commission is due to rule on the length of his suspension, which could rule him out of the Champions League final, should Bayern overcome Lyon and reach Madrid.

Now even Alanis Morissette would call that ironic.

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