Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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From “Les Bleus” to “the Blues”

PARIS – Is football (soccer) just a mirror that reflects the collective emotions of a country? Or should it instead be seen as a magnifying glass, if not sometimes a distorting mirror, that reveals on the playing field the frustrations, fears, ambition, or hope of a nation?

It would be tempting to attribute to football a “mapping” of the emotional state of the world. Asia is doing less well in the World Cup than it is doing in economic terms, yet it is definitely progressing, compensating for the current lack of individual talent by the greater collective discipline shown by its teams.

By contrast, in terms of creativity, Latin American flair shines well beyond Brazil and its confirmed emerging-power status in the world to encompass countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, and even Chile. Africa, despite some rare individual national successes, continues to underperform, even with the World Cup in its backyard.

As a Frenchman who watched with a mixture of sadness and humiliation the behavior of the French national team, on and off the field (happily, the torture is over), the image in the mirror makes a lot of sense. But can one go so far as to say that a depressed country can produce only a depressed team?

There are many countries with social and economic conditions that are equal to or worse than France’s, yet their national teams are currently shining on the field. Consider Portugal or the Netherlands, not to mention Spain. And just think of Argentina. One could almost speak of an inverse relationship between a country’s confidence and that of its World Cup football team.

The catastrophic performance of France’s team in South Africa may well reinforce the nation’s depression. French citizens badly needed a furlough, if only for a month, from the socio-economic reality of their country.

But one should not confuse the consequence with the cause. The French team’s performance may reflect the mood of the country, but the failure of France’s international stars to jell reflected, above all, a total absence of leadership at the helm. Too much money, too little respect for the honor of wearing the team shirt – the unraveling of “Les Bleus” has not been an event but a process, the chronicle of a disaster foretold, to quote Roselyne Bachelot, France’s minister of health and sport.

In reality, what applies to France can also be said of many other teams, such as Italy. But nowhere is the contrast between the recent glorious past and the miserable present as spectacular as it is in France. In the land of Moliere, failure, like success, must be theatrical.

In 1998, France could celebrate the multicolor, multi-ethnic victory of “Les Bleus.” In 2010, France has the “blues,” and some people are starting to see, through the failure of the national team, the limits of the French model of integration.

“We” Frenchmen were so proud in 1998 of watching the gigantic, iconic image of Zinedine Zidane (the French captain, who is of Algerian descent) being projected onto the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees. “We” French were not only on top of the world, we were overcome by a sense of pride, probably similar to what many Americans felt after Barack Obama’s presidential victory. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity seemed very real as the values of our Republic.

In 2010, “The rise and fall of Les Bleus” can be interpreted as an accelerated version of Gibbon’s study of the decline of the Roman Empire. A weak emperor (the president of the French Football Federation) chose an incompetent general (the coach Raymond Domenech), who failed to inspire mercenaries (the players) or to instill in them a sense of collective sacrifice and duty.

But there is a study much more useful than Gibbon’s analysis of Rome for understanding what happened to France’s team: Marc Bloch’s masterful examination of France’s collapse in 1940, A Strange Defeat. Like the French army in the spring of 1940, the French team’s strategy and technique were outmoded. If one substitutes war for soccer, the comparison that comes to mind is that of the aging French military establishment, behind the Maginot Line in 1940, unable to confront General Heinz Guderian’s masterful command of blitzkrieg tank attacks.

A question remains. Is France just an extreme version of Europe’s traditional “Big Powers” predicament? In Europe, at least when it comes to soccer, “small is beautiful,” and, as a fan, it is much better to be Dutch, Portuguese, or Slovak, than Italian, English, or, of course, French. Even Spain and Germany, despite qualifying for the next round, have started to scare theirs fans with mixed results.

In 2006, the World Cup final was European, with Italy defeating France. This year’s final may well be a Latin American affair.

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