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Feuding Soccer Team Roiling French Fans’ Hopes for World Cup

June 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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French leaders and fans condemned their national soccer team, following players' refusal to practice on Sunday after a teammate's dismissal. Jeffrey Brown talks to Roger Bennett of ESPN.com for an update on the controversy from the World Cup in South Africa.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the World Cup in South Africa, where tensions are rising in some surprising ways.

After oh so many low-scoring games, there was a sudden glut of goals today, as Portugal poured it on North Korea 7-0. But it’s been the poor performances of several European powers that’s stolen the headlines so far. England and Italy have both played two lackluster ties. And then there’s the French, who seem to be out to set the wrong kind of World Cup record for the bizarre.

This weekend, French striker Nicolas Anelka was dismissed from the team after a heated argument with coach Raymond Domenech. In response, his teammates refused to practice.

RAYMOND DOMENECH, coach, France National Football Team (through translator): No one can permit themselves to act like that, either in the dressing room or elsewhere. The exemplary nature of high level sportsman is something important, especially in football. No one act this way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, today, Domenech said some of his players may refuse to play their final group game against host South Africa tomorrow.

As to South Africa, if it loses that match, it would become the first host team to fail to advance beyond the group stage, part of what has been a disappointing round for African teams generally.

In the meantime, the U.S. will advance with a win and possibly with a tie in its next match against Algeria on Wednesday.

And some Cup controversy perspective from Roger Bennett, co-host of “Off the Ball” on ESPN.com and co-author of ESPN’s “World Cup Companion.”

So, Roger, this French meltdown, have you ever seen anything like it? What’s going on?

ROGER BENNETT, ESPN.com: The World Cup has had its fair of intrigue, its fair share of teams not getting along. But this definitely is unique in World Cup history.

Zinedine Zidane, the great French legend, pinpointed two problems for the team last week. Unfortunately, they were pretty sizable. The first, he said, was the coach. The second, he says, was the team…

ROGER BENNETT: … and their complete lack of teamwork. So, I guess it all begins there.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s risen to the highest levels in France. The president, Sarkozy, has spoken about it. He sent the minister to the — to visit the team.

And the sports minister today said that French football faces a — quote — “moral disaster.” That’s very French, to put it in moral terms, right?

ROGER BENNETT: Well, this whole incident is exquisitely French. Only the French could do team meltdowns in such fine style. I mean, French soccer, ideally, they love to lose with style and grace and a degree of pain, as opposed to win in a classless fashion.

So, this is a complete quandary for the nation, started a long time ago with the manner of their qualification via a handball, an illegal handball, which got them past the unlucky Irish to earn a slot here. Eighty-five percent of the French nation said it was a day of shame, despite the fact that they qualified.

Things have gotten worse. There was an underaged prostitution scandal so shocking that it even offended French sensibilities. And the team, since they have arrived, have rivaled only the “Housewives of New Jersey” for soap opera-style storylines, which have just riven them apart.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this — this general malaise for some of the major powers in Europe — I mentioned England and Italy — what’s going on there?

ROGER BENNETT: Oh, Jeff, it pains me to talk about England. I love the team as much as the next sadomasochist from England.

ROGER BENNETT: But the joy to watching them is akin to rubbernecking.

It’s a very complex situation. I’m sure a lot will come out in the media after they are booted ingloriously from the tournament. They are overpaid. Minnows Algeria squeezed the arrogance out of the team in their last game.

And a mixture of egotism run amok and the Italian manager, Fabio Capello, whom they imported to bring style and a technical knowledge to the England passionate game, something has gotten lost in translation there, Jeff. And that team — it saddens to me say this — is falling apart.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you have those great teams, and maybe not everybody is sad to see them go down as you are, but the African teams have been disappointing. And there’s the chance that none of them, in fact, will go through to the next round.

ROGER BENNETT: It’s absolutely true.

Going into this tournament, one of the great storylines was that this was the African World Cup, the first to be played on the African continent. So many teams — this has almost been the World Cup of parity. So many of the smaller, unfancied teams, New Zealand dueling with Italy, an unbelievable performance, have shown they can toe-to-toe with great classical World Cup powers.

Somehow, the Africans, almost across the board, have fired a blank. And while Ghana still have a chance and a couple of the other teams are mathematically in the races, chaos in their football federations, disorganization, very late-in-the-day management changes have really undermined their ability to excel in front of their unbelievably passionate supporters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in the meantime, the U.S. has had to overcome what I think universally is felt to have been that bad call that denied them a victory in the last game, but they have one more to come against Algeria in this round, and a win gets them through, right?

ROGER BENNETT: Absolutely.

One win will get them through. And it’s an American team that is so likable in a way that — almost the opposite of the English team, which has everything going for it, but no performance on the pitch. America have played with pluck, with verve, with panache at times. They’re hard not to love.

It’s going to be an amazing game on Wednesday. It’s played simultaneously with the England game. And, frankly, England — this is how bad things are, Jeff — they will be dreading the game against the mighty Green Dragons of Slovenia on Wednesday. And I am extremely bullish and very, very confident about the U.S.’ possibilities.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Roger, before I let you go, I have to ask you about one more thing. That’s the issue of flopping, which always interests me, I guess, and maybe American audience here.

It’s not — it’s an old story, and they have tried to do things to stop it, but it seems to go on, right?

ROGER BENNETT: Well, they always say that the World Cup is the greatest sporting soap opera. So, perhaps you have to excuse its thespian moments.

There have been many. The game is extremely tight. Any kind of an edge will give any team an advantage. And these theatrics are purposefully designed to win a free kick that could bring a goal, get an opponent dismissed, and alienate the American viewing public all in one fell swoop.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it also looks like every country has their individual style for how to do the flop.

ROGER BENNETT: The amazing thing is, England pretends — English people pretend to find it distasteful. There’s a word for it in Italian. It’s called (SPEAKING ITALIAN). I guess it would translate as gamesmanship, toughly.

They excel in it and hold it up as an art. Englishmen pretend to be offended by it, but I have to tell you, Jeff, we’re as good as anybody when it comes to the crunch.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Roger Bennett, I’m sorry about your England team. Good luck.

ROGER BENNETT: I am, too, Jeff. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Good luck, and thanks for joining us.

ROGER BENNETT: Thanks for having me.