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Race, bling and les Bleus

A story of modern France and modern football.

Tout seul: Souvenirs
Raymond Domenech
Flammarion, 400pp, €19.90

As almost every French person knows, at halftime during France’s hopeless defeat to Mexico in the 2010 football World Cup, the forward Nicolas Anelka shouted at his coach, Raymond Domenech: “Enculé! [Usually translated as “bugger” or worse.] Do it yourself then, with your shit team! Me, I’m quitting.”

All those involved being French, what shocked Domenech most was that Anelka had addressed him with the familiar “tu” instead of the formal “vous”. This encounter led to another quintessentially French moment: after Dome - nech and France’s football federation expelled Anelka from the squad, the players went on strike mid-World Cup. The phrase “the bus of shame” – the bus that the players sat in one day, refusing to train – has entered the French language. Domenech shared the blame for the national disgrace. Today, he is a pariah in France.

His bizarre new memoir, Tout seul (“all alone”), is his attempt to explain how things got so bad. It’s unlike any other football memoir, often unintentionally hilarious and filled with character assassinations of almost every major French player of his era, from Anelka to Zinedine Zidane. Domenech claims he could only have written it with two years’ distance; one hardly dares imagine what he would have written in the heat of the moment. It’s a story of modern France and modern football. Above all, it works as a business book in reverse: a study in how not to manage people.

A working-class boy from Lyon, Domenech grew up to be an aggressive, moustachioed foot - baller. He played eight times for France in the 1970s and later became coach of France’s youth teams. In 2004, he used his political skills to procure the top job. (“The network, Gérard Houllier used to tell us at the coaching courses, the network . . .”) During his six years managing France, he kept a diary, which is the basis for Tout seul.

From the start, Domenech was a solitary figure inside the French football establishment. First, he writes, others didn’t consider him “legitimate” because he hadn’t been a great footballer. Second, as an intellectual by footballing standards (he is a keen amateur actor), he was inclined to look down on his players. And, as the book reveals, he didn’t possess people skills.

The team he inherited had long been run by the players. In 1998 and 2000, when France won the World Cup and then the European Football Championship, it is said that Laurent “Le Président” Blanc, the team’s leader (Didier Deschamps was officially captain), would ceremonially punch any player who disrupted the collective. (In 2010, Blanc succeeded Dome - nech as France’s manager.)

Domenech set out to deprive his players of power. Nobody’s advice was required. Doctors and physiotherapists who were too close to the players were ousted. No wonder that Zidane, his captain at the World Cup of 2006, told him: “I feel I’m not of any use as captain. The players ask me what’s happening and I can never answer them.”

Still, after a poor start, a brilliant Zidane led the French to the World Cup final against Italy. In Berlin, however, Zidane headbutted the Italian Marco Materazzi – a moment now immortalised by a statue in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris – and was sent off. France lost, agonisingly, in the penalty shoot-out when David Trezeguet’s kick hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced out. That’s how close Domenech got to winning a World Cup.

Domenech – who constantly breaks footballing taboos by revealing intimate moments behind closed doors – describes the changingroom scene after the defeat. He made a speech praising Zidane, who was retiring from football immediately, and asked the players to applaud their captain. “There was only the grinding of teeth,” he recalls, “and my applause was not spontaneously followed . . . Certain players really hated their captain.” They could not forgive Zidane for sabotaging victory, he says. Nor, it seems, could Domenech.

He notes that Zidane was a serial offender, sent off 13 times previously. And he has an interesting theory about Zidane’s self-destructive headbutt: it looked, he writes, as if Zidane was “taking revenge on his own glory, as if he felt his success was as miraculous as it was unbearable”. Perhaps there is something in this.

That headbutt ended a glorious French era. I live in Paris and, over the next four years, I spent many freezing evenings at the Stade de France watching Domenech’s France play souldestroyingly ugly football. For the most part, Domenech blames the players. After 2006, Zidane et al exited, to be replaced by the first generation of footballers to have become millionaires on signing their first contract. Football had changed in the 1990s, with fortunes flowing in from television, and the “Bosman ruling”, which gave footballers greater freedom of contract. When Domenech broke into Olym - pique Lyonnais’s first team as a teenager in 1969, he earned 900 francs a month, or about what his dad made in the factory. When Karim Benzema was a teenager at Lyon 35 years later, he earned €250,000 a month.

These young men had different habits. They would sleep all afternoon and then sit up into the early morning, having endless conversations. They “erected friendship into a supreme value, yet would break it because of an insult or a reported comment”. They disrespected authority.

From the start, Domenech seems to have regarded many of his players with contempt. “It is always difficult to know what these immature boys have in their heads,” he writes. Rereading his diary from the last World Cup, he feels “rising inside me a fund of hatred that I cannot contain”. His sketches of his players – highly respected figures internationally, many of them stalwarts of English clubs – are startlingly candid. There’s almost an entire psycho- biography here of Anelka alone. A few samples will have to suffice. On Samir Nasri: “In a group, he always pushes where it hurts and reveals the sore spot instead of soothing it. And as a playmaker, he is just illusory . . . As the quality of his game isn’t excellent, the balance is worse than meagre.” On William Gallas: “He will never be a leader . . . Nobody could bear his attitude.”

When Domenech refused to give the players a Sunday off, Gallas allegedly threatened to play badly in a qualifying match. On Florent Malouda: “Glory has made him pretentious.” On Hatem Ben Arfa, Domenech cites the verdict of a senior player: “Punches, without hesitation.”

On Anelka, seen playing for Chelsea: “It’s a bizarre impression: he serves no point yet has an exceptional aura. You are reminded of Cantona.” Benzema’s lack of responsiveness in conversation reminds Domenech of a “young Anelka”. Franck Ribéry, France’s best player, is repeatedly depicted as a narcissist with learning difficulties who refuses to play anywhere but left wing. Even Thierry Henry is shown playing the disc jockey and not bothering to warm up when he was substitute before that fatal France-Mexico match.

Then there are all the conflicts between players. Domenech doesn’t take Nasri to the World Cup in 2010 because the midfielder and Ribéry loathe each other, “angry over a story of money and family”. Gallas also dislikes Nasri. Malouda, Yoann Gourcuff, Henry and Patrick Vieira all clash with Ribéry. Players won’t pass to Gourcuff. The list goes on.

No doubt this generation of French players is a bit of a menagerie. It’s often said that the hardest job in international football is managing England but at least English players are mostly obedient. The media and public demand it of them, because the historical role model for an English footballer is the soldier. They order these matters differently in France.

Nonetheless, Domenech’s complaints aren’t good enough. If you are a football manager, you can’t just whine about young people today. You have to work with them. Great managers, such as Alex Ferguson or Guus Hiddink, can work with almost anyone (in Ferguson’s case, even with Cantona). The players whom Dome - nech savages have all succeeded at their clubs. Admittedly, club managers have more control than national managers over the weapons of pay and career. However, national managers can offer glory: a World Cup trumps any Champions League and the players know it. High pay hasn’t spoiled all footballers: of the 32 teams at the 2010 World Cup, only one went on strike.

In short, the problem is mostly Domenech. Partly it’s because he stuck with one unhelpful bit of the old corporate culture of the French team: an old-fashioned rhetoric about the values of football and of France. In the “bus of shame”, Domenech spoke to the striking players “of the dignity of their country, the judgement of their families, the honour of football”. They weren’t persuaded. Probably nobody under 35 who works in football believes this sort of thing. Tout seul never mentions the issue of ethnicity but these players overwhelmingly grew up in black and brown ghettos far from the French mainstream. What, they might have reflected, had France ever done for them?

In the end, he cannot reach them, mostly because he’s bad with people. About the only hint of empathy he shows for any player is when he writes that Ribéry, “for various reasons, was in a psychologically difficult phase”. However, he immediately adds: “In my eyes it was unimaginable to give in to his caprice.” Domenech worships the collective but not the people in it. The title Tout seul, presumably intended to evoke pity, contains another truth: he had no friends.

From autumn 2006 onwards, Domenech appears increasingly tired, angry and apparently depressed. The media tear him apart. Unlike, say, England’s last manager, Fabio Capello, he seems a sensitive man and sensitivity is a handicap in this job. He now realises that he should have resigned earlier. “Happy are those who can stop at the summit,” he reflects in 2009. He continued partly because he saw himself as a battler, partly because he couldn’t face a shameful exit and partly, surely, because he wanted the pay. In any case, staying was a selfish decision.

The team was already splintering at Euro 2008 (even worse than at the World Cup, he darkly hints) and Domenech’s reputation suffered when, after France’s elimination, with the nation already angry, he ignored an interviewer’s questions about the shambles and instead proposed to his girlfriend live on television. (His girlfriend was furious, too.) Two years later in South Africa, his team disintegrated.

Writing about that last World Cup, he finally drops his cocksureness and admits mistakes. For instance, he had decided not to take Henry to South Africa but ended up picking him – for “emotional reasons”, he claims, but in truth probably because his nerves were shot and he couldn’t face the public uproar that Henry’s ejection would have provoked.

He blundered again in South Africa by reading out his players’ declaration of their strike to the TV cameras – thereby associating himself with a reviled act of which even he disapproved. (His first thought, on seeing the declaration, was to wonder who had written the long words for them.)

Domenech returned from South Africa so despised in France that his three-year-old son asked him: “Papa, are you going to go to prison?” Two years later, things have scarcely improved. “At the head of my next team,” he fantasises at one point, “I’ll probably change my manner of functioning.” If that team comes, it might be in a desert or on a Pacific island. Domenech currently works for France’s coaches’ trade union and as a pundit for a small cable TV channel. He dedicates Tout seul to “members of my family, who had the heavy burden of carrying this name for six years”. He wrote the book, he explains at the end, for fear “that all that will be left of me is the memory of a bus. I wanted to leave another trace.”

Yet all that will most likely be left of him is the memory of a bus.

Simon Kuper is the author of “The Football Men” (Simon & Schuster, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?