Resentment over Gourcuff treatment behind implosion


GROUP A FRANCE 1 SOUTH AFRICA 2There is a symbolic aspect to the power struggle in the heart of the team and the ills of wider French society

YOANN GOURCUFF could be forgiven for thinking the whole world is against him. Having been ignored by many of his team-mates for the past three weeks, France’s mercurial misfit saw his unhappy World Cup come to an end even more prematurely than that of his colleagues when he was sent off for an elbow in the first half against South Africa yesterday.

Trudging down the tunnel, Bordeaux’s talented playmaker looked dejected, but he must also have felt some relief his personal trials in South Africa were over.

The rift between Gourcuff and several high-profile players, including Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery, was the trigger to Les Bleus’ dramatic implosion over the last few days.

Gourcuff is seemingly from a different mould to the others. Intelligent, polite and well-spoken, the 23-year-old does not fit in with what many in France are calling the “spoilt brat” generation. He enjoyed a comfortable childhood in Brittany where his father, Christian, the respected coach of Lorient, ensured he received a rounded education. Clean-cut and good-looking, he is an excellent tennis player, and counts the former Olympic swimming star turned celebrity Laure Manaudou in his social circle.

Most of France’s squad grew up in much tougher conditions in the poorest suburbs. Ribery was raised in a run-down council estate in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Eric Abidal lived in one of Lyon’s most deprived areas, while Thierry Henry, William Gallas and Anelka all spent their childhoods in so-called quartiers difficiles outside Paris.

It is no coincidence these are the players who have frozen Gourcuff out in South Africa. They resent the way the French press builds Gourcuff up as Zinedine Zidane’s successor. They envy the positive attention he receives from the media. They regard him as arrogant and pretentious because he reads books and expresses himself eloquently when analysing a game.

Raymond Domenech wanted to build his attack around the 2008/09 French Player of the Year, but several senior players objected, pressurising the coach to restore Henry or Florent Malouda to the line-up. In the opening game against Uruguay, Anelka and Ribery made their stance abundantly clear by refusing to pass to Gourcuff.

To behave in such a way at a World Cup is unforgivable and many are calling for Anelka and Ribery to be banished from the team for good.

Yet Domenech did not feel he had the authority to sanction them, and instead dropped Gourcuff for the second game against Mexico.

Anelka then went too far by firing a tirade of expletives at Domenech at half-time in that game. The decision to send the Chelsea striker home in disgrace would not have been taken lightly by the French federation. Anelka is a hugely popular figure in France’s multicultural suburbs, and his public shaming is unlikely to sit well in areas where racial tensions run high.

Less than five years ago, these suburbs were transformed into battlefields as disaffected youths, largely from immigrant backgrounds, rioted night upon night for three weeks. Nobody is suggesting France’s soccer debacle will spark similar scenes, yet there is an acutely symbolic aspect to the power struggle in the heart of the team and the apparent ills of wider society.

Indeed, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has been quick to link the dreadful behaviour of Les Bleus to a wider social problem. “It feels like France has been invited to look into the mirror – a terrible mirror,” he told radio station Europe 1.

“We have moved on from the Zidane generation to the scum generation. Laurent Blanc (Domenech’s successor) should ignore players like Anelka, Ribery, Evra, Gallas and Abidal, who have behaved in a shameful manner, notably with Yoann Gourcuff. They are a gang of thugs. It’s not possible to have these ethnic, religious divides in the France team.”

Finkielkraut is known for his forthright views, yet there can be little doubt cultural differences were behind France’s demise. Interestingly, Gourcuff’s closest acquaintances in the team are Hugo Lloris and Jeremy Toulalan. They are white, but this is not a colour issue. Ribery, of course, is white too, yet he identifies more with those from similar social backgrounds.

Ribery is also idolised by the North African community in France, partly because, like Anelka, he has converted to Islam. But also because he rose to the top from the most difficult of starts and remained humble despite his immense success.

The humility now seems to have gone, however, and France’s campaign appears to have further highlighted a divided nation.