It's bawl over now: Nasri row resurrects World Cup 'ghosts'

Mon, Jun 25, 2012, 01:00

SOCCER:THE UEFA volunteer tried, but in the end there was little he could do. Philippe Mexes exited the dressingroom and instead of turning left wheeled right, where a cordon blocked his path.

The volunteer, a young Ukrainian in regulation Uefa gear, told him the exit was the other way, past the waiting journalists. He stood in Mexes’s way, just a kid, half the size of the French defender. Mexes grabbed the tape and went to walk past so the volunteer softly, apologetically grabbed it back and signalled the right route out of the Donbass Arena.

Mexes looked at him, a serious stare, lifted the tape and bullied his way beyond the kid, not a word. The volunteer shrugged in resignation and put the tape back. Others did not follow the French player’s path but they mirrored his mood. Florent Malouda marched past, tunnel vision, not a glance. Deaf to the world. In their body language, it was tempting to conclude that those Frenchmen who did not stop said more than those who did. Mostly, those who did speak conceded they had been beaten by the better side. There was, said the captain, Hugo Lloris, “nothing to be ashamed of”.

But perhaps there was.

Samir Nasri stared straight ahead, pace quickening, a kind of determination on his face. He said nothing as he headed to the bus. It turned out that he already had as he had passed French journalists. Asked for his thoughts, he replied: “You’re looking for shit, you’re looking for trouble.” To which the journalist responded: “Get lost.” Nasri shot back: “Fuck you!” and more abuse allegedly followed.

It was not the first time that Nasri had reacted against what he considers unfair media criticism. When he collected the man-of-the-match award following France’s win against Ukraine, he stepped off the platform and muttered at his detractors: “That was at you.” But this was worse. President of the French Football Federation Noel Le Graet, who had defended Nasri’s previous remark, was not impressed, describing the reaction as “intolerable”. “We will,” he said, “look at this problem and discuss what to do”.

France coach Laurent Blanc said: “There is a problem between the press and Samir Nasri. It was embarrassing and regrettable. If this is true, it is a disrespect to the journalist . . . I already told Samir what I had to say, obviously the message did not get through.”

Read that statement again. It is Blanc’s final line that is significant. The coach had already spoken to Nasri and it had made no difference. Prior warning, subsequent frustration. It is a message that is not just about Nasri’s relationship with the media either but his relationship with team-mates, too. His demeanour and his contribution.

Nasri appears to have been at the centre of the arguments that followed France’s defeat against Sweden, with accusations levelled at him for selfishness. Against Spain, he was not included in the starting 11. Inevitably, some interpreted that decision as being motivated by more than just tactics.

One of the striking things about the conflict is how quickly it became public knowledge and how openly members of the France camp talked about it. And yet it feels like there may be more details still to emerge. Attitudes were questioned, relationships, too. The idea re-emerged that they are a team with deep problems. The word ghosts was used by coach and players, the word demons, too: they admitted to fearing that “ghosts” of the World Cup in South Africa would reappear.

The atmosphere was dark in Donetsk and while that is normal after a knockout, the flash of conflict spoke of tension and temperament. Following France’s exit, Blanc was asked about managing this group and whether he wanted to keep doing so. His answer was noncommittal. Before the quarter-final the talk was of having managed the crisis well. Perhaps, it was suggested, it might even propel them against Spain. It did not. France’s players spoke of having fulfilled their objective in reaching the quarter-final. But that is a modest objective and this tournament cannot be seen as a success for the French.

The progress of the previous months under Blanc was reversed. They had not lost in 24 games before they faced Sweden; at Euro 2012 they won only once. They lost to a team with nothing to play for. France left Ukraine too early. They also left Ukraine too little.

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