I suppose it’s best to start with what everyone knows, Thierry Henry and his unorthodox goal against Ireland. There are no excuses to be made, this was clearly cheating. That by itself would be enough to turn most neutral fans against France, but it’s compounded by having been against perennial lovable underdogs Ireland, denying them a spot in the World Cup. But oh, there’s more…
Two players, Franck Ribéry and Sydney Govou, have been accused of sleeping with a 17-year old prostitute (Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema, who have also played for the French national squad, are also under investigation, but neither is going to the World Cup). That’s not something to endear the French to the neutral fan either, and makes their fans grudging and bitter about supporting them.
These two things alone are enough to make France the team to root against this year, but on top of that they have played badly since the last World Cup and their coach, Raymond Domenech, is completely ridiculous. His antics are many, from refusing to use players based on their star signs, to publicly proposing to his girlfriend during a press conference following France’s exit from the European Championship in 2008. He is near-universally hated at home and made fun of abroad.
So why do I support France despite all this? It’s simple, I lived in France as a kid, from when I was 2 until I was 6 years old. Part of my heart will always beat for France. On top of that I was 17 when France won the World Cup, playing wonderful football the whole time. France in 1998 and 2000 were the last glorious gasp of total football. Every player took part in the offense, even the back four. 3 of the regular 4 starters in defense scored goals in the 1998 World Cup (Blanc, Lizarazu and Thuram), and every player on the team, except striker Guivarc’h, was great. This is the team that solidified my love for the French national team. I can’t not support them, even though these past 10 years, since they won Euro 2000, have brought nothing but heartbreak. The ludicrously poor showing at the 2002 World Cup, the lacklustre Euro 2004, the stunning display at the last World Cup which ended with Zidane’s moment of madness and Trezeguet’s missed penalty. I’ll admit that I was traumatized by the final and took years to get over it. Euro 2008 was painful to watch, but at least wasn’t traumatizing, and ended mercifully early as France where out of the competition after the group stages.
Supporting the bad guys is a new experience for me. In fact, I can’t really face up to the fact. In my heart of hearts I still think that the team will play attractive football and live up to my hopes. The loss of defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra to sickle-cell anemia has forced Domenech to go with a more offensive tactic, 4-3-3, than the dreary 4-2-3-1 which he has preferred in the past. Talent-wise France are second to none. Hugo Lloris is a brilliant young goalkeeper. The backline, Evra, Gallas, Abidal and Sagna are all topnotch. Toulalan is a smart defensive midfielder. Gourcuff, Malouda are creative on the attack. Ribéry is unpredictable and dangerous. Govou hasn’t been at his best lately, so he might lose his spot to Abou Diaby, but if either play capably they could have a good World Cup. Anelka had a great season with Chelsea, so he could score a lot of goals this year. Henry, you ask? He’ll almost certainly be a substitute, brought on late in the game, if at all. Teams beset by scandal and antagonistic media have often pulled together and gotten far. Italy and France in 2006 and Argentina in 1986 and 1990 are all recent examples, so maybe the team will develop a siege mentality and play with purpose, eager to prove all their detractors wrong. On the other hand, France fell apart in 2008, so it’s unlikely.
So yes, no matter how well they’ll play, Henry’s handball, the underage prostitute scandal, and the absurd coach will all mean that only those of us who have an emotional connection to the team will be rooting for them. Most of us have sometimes found ourselves emotionally bound to individuals, groups, or ideas that do not merit our attachment, but we can’t help it. Now I know what supporting KR must feel like.* It’s tough to root for France this year, but all matters of the heart bring pain as well as joy, so those of us who can’t but root for this year’s designated villains will just have to live with it. To quote Vincent van Gogh: “Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.”
Photo by Crystian Cruz