Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ah No, Domenech...

France exited stage right last night in a pitiful display which saw them outplayed by the Italians in a soporific match (I was awoken from a first-half doze by Thierry Roland announcing the expulsion of Éric Abidal for the foul on Luca Toni that led to the first Italian goal). It has been sad to watch the collapse of the French team in this tournament, mainly because you know what talent there is there in the country's football set-up, probably more than in any other country in Europe. It was also sad to see one of my favourite footballers Lilian Thuram be humiliated by the Dutch on Friday night - however undeniably thrilling it was to watch the Dutch do their magic. When Thuram came out of retirement three years ago along with Claude Makelele and Zinedine Zidane to sort an ineffectual team out and qualify them for the 2006 World Cup, it was him that dashed Irish hopes at Lansdowne Road with a magisterial second-half display that cut off all the danger that Ireland had mustered in the first half of that match. He was equally imposing in France's march to the final the following summer but now it is clear that he is a year or two past his best and about five yards off most the strikers he would have easily snuffed off not so long ago.

Thuram, whether he decides to retire now or not, will have a career that extends far beyond football, and given the man's intelligence and political activism, I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a glittering star on the French left, which sorely needs a man of his stature and conviction. When Abidal got sent off last night, Thuram stood up on the bench and prepared to strip to run on, rightly assuming that the most-capped player and captain until his dropping, would be the obvious replacement for a missing centre-half. French manager Raymond Domenech had other ideas however and in his wisdom, he sent on the underwhelming Lyon full-back Jean-Alain Boumsong instead, presumably the same wisdom that allowed him to select Boumsong ahead of players such as Gaël Clichy and Philippe Méxès in the first place.

Though the French players (the injured Franck Ribéry excepted) must bear their own responsibility for their spineless performance, they were hampered as ever by the cluelessness of the baffy charlatan in charge of them. Domenech's predilections for astrology have long been ridiculed by many (and even suspected for some of his team selections) but there is a deeply unpleasant side to the man that deserves more comment. Ireland saw it in the run-up to the game in Lansdowne three years ago when he dismissed Brian Kerr's side as a bunch of hoofers (say what you like about Kerr but his teams were never of the kick-and-rush variety) and his ungraciousness in two defeats against a plucky but limited Scottish team indicates his general lack of class. The Swiss media and people alike have deplored the arrogance and commitment to secrecy of Domenech's entourage since before this championship began, comparing them, unfavourably, and not to mention ominously, to Marco van Basten's Dutch squad. Many people are of the opinion that his sidelining of Méxès, consistently one of the best centre-halfs in Serie A in recent years, is due to petty animus. And then last night Domenech criticised the sending-off of Abidal, claiming that there was not a clear goalscoring chance denied. The man's cowardice and complete lack of responsibility was finally cemented when, questioned by his common-law partner Estelle Denis, on his future after the game, he proposed marriage to her. While being knocked out of the European Championship is not, in the wider scheme of things, a terribly serious occurrence, one might expect of Domenech at this point a greater degree of professionalism and seriousness than this. L'Équipe was moved to call it in an editorial, 'more than a managerial error, a lapse of taste.' Right they are, and Mlle. Denis' tolerance of this nonsense may prove to be the first of many such examples in her future life. The French Football Federation will surely elect to remove this craven, unprepossessing buffoon next month, following a tournament in which there were not enough of the old guard to rebel against his foolishness and play as they wished, as they did in Germany two years ago. He will not be missed in the world of football.

All of this is not to take away from Italy's performace, which showed a great deal of character and adventurousness. Even in the defeat by Holland they have been playing some good football in this tournament and I expect them to burst the Spanish bubble come the quarter-finals to set up a rematch with the Dutch in the semi-finals. But, then again, having seen, Guus Hiddink's Russia outplay Sweden tonight without even being impressive, the Dutch may find one being put over them by their former manager...