Two group games into the World Cup and France have fantastically imploded for all the world to see. Perhaps it’s fitting considering their path to the finals in the first place. To say Les Bleus’ qualification was ‘questionable’ is an understatement. Thierry Henry’s now infamous “Le Main De Dieu” (Hand of God) against the Republic of Ireland was shameful. Even French newspaper Le Monde titled their headline “Blues Relieved, Irish Disgusted.” Yet, Henry didn’t seem to feel any shame as he came out publicly and admitted to the use of his hand that led to the goal for France, subsequently allowing them to qualify in place of Ireland. Sadly, this is a player who was revered around the world as one of the best in the history of the game. With one incident, he marred his good name forever. But at least he got France qualified. The French are the only ones to forgive him so far.
Fast-forward eight months and France’s karma has kicked in. Their first match, while not a total disaster, was a toothless draw against Uruguay. This was the first of many dull opening round games, but as 2006 runners up, people expected more. In the second game, France began to unravel. Another awful display led to a 2-0 loss to Mexico. The difference in body language between the sides, epitomized by the two managers, was astounding. Mexico’s manager Javier Aguirre was demonstrative on the sidelines, cheering his players on, congratulating their efforts at every turn as they played admirably against France. On the other end of the spectrum, French manager Raymond Domenech cut a lonely and uninterested figure on the sideline. He stood frozen, arms crossed, blank expression on his face. No effort was made to inspire his team, it almost felt as if he didn’t care whether they won or lost, conceded or scored. The team was dreadful. What followed was a break down of epic proportions. The squad refused to train, France striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home after a profanity filled tirade against Domenech, and France’s team director, Jean-Louis Valentin, resigned. Before driving away after he angrily walked out on the French squad, Valentin added, “As for me, it’s over. I’m leaving the federation. I’m sickened and disgusted.” That really says it all.
England, on the other hand, do not look like descending into this kind of chaos, but many similarities can be drawn between the two sides, much to the England fans’ irritation. In regard to England’s latest group game against Algeria, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a worse performance. The image of former England and Liverpool player Steve McManaman, one of the panelists covering the match, slamming his head against the desk after the final whistle was something to behold. To claim the team lacked inspiration, creativity, passion, and talent would be a massive understatement. They looked an empty shell of a football team, with no idea as to what they were doing there. Most predicted an easy victory for England, as Algeria is not a team that should be feared by players of England’s magnitude. The result couldn’t be further from that assumption. The England squad even used the word ‘fear’ in the aftermath of a shockingly dull 0-0 draw. Fear? What exactly were they scared of? These are players who play for Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool. They’ve played in Champions League finals, won league titles, and many can be named with the best in the world in their respective positions. And yet they were scared of Algeria, a team that should have been swept aside with consummate ease, especially after a disappointing draw with the United States. This was their opportunity to regain confidence and propel themselves easily into the round of 16. But rather than resemble the great team they are quite capable of being with players like Rooney, Gerrard, and Lampard, they looked like… well, France.
Capello had a lot to answer for after the game against the USA, but even more to answer for after Algeria. He once again refused to use Joe Cole, probably England’s most incisive player when it comes to unlocking defenses with sheer creativity. Instead, he opted for Gareth Barry in the middle. A player I am still not convinced should be there, and shoved Gerrard out to the left. But rather than allow the formation to shift from a rigid 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 with Gerrard just behind Rooney, where he is devastatingly dangerous, he was forced wide and had no impact on the game. Neither did any of his teammates. Wayne Rooney thrives on having boundless energy from the first to the last whistle, and chasing back to defend is something he is renowned for. By the closing stages against Algeria, he barely walked back to defend, let alone run. And what of Capello? He stood frozen on the sideline, arms crossed, blank expression on his face. He made no effort to inspire his team or look for solutions to shake them out of their slumber. Instead, he resembled Domenech and his team resembled France.
But there is still hope. While France has dissolved into turmoil, England is attempting to band together and pick themselves up. Largely due to the USA’s unlucky draw against Slovenia, they now hold their fate in their own hands for Wednesday’s third group stage match. With a win, they become the England team everyone believes they are. Anything less, and their future has an undeniable feel of French ‘je ne sais quoi.’