Why Do the French Loathe Their Soccer Team?

France’s hated coach, Raymond Domenech. Franck Fife / AFP-Getty Images

The mood in France for the 2010 World Cup is comically grim. In a 14-country poll measuring global interest in the lead-up to the tournament, the French were dead last, falling behind even the United States (at 56 and 58 percent, respectively). Only one in five French think their team—nicknamed "Les Bleus"—can win the trophy, despite the fact that France is the defending runner-up and ranked ninth in the world. (In comparison, the majority of Ghana's fans think their team, ranked 32nd, has a sure shot at the Cup.) Half of the team's fans don't think they'll make it past the quarter-final round. A headline on Le Monde's Web site last week advised readers, "to appreciate the World Cup, forget Les Bleus".

Why all the gloom? After all, the French were finalists in two of the last three World Cups. But it's been a downhill slide ever since the overtime minutes of the final '06 game, when French star Zinedine Zidane snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and crushed France's title hopes with a head butt to the chest of a mouthy Italian. Since then, veterans like Zidane have retired and the squad's performances have been disappointing. In recent months, the team has been embarrassed off the field by a police investigation into a prostitution ring and allegations that some star players, including midfielder Franck Ribéry, visited an underage prostitute. Just before the tournament, the country's state secretary for sport also roundly criticized the team for its extravagant spending on luxury accommodations in South Africa. And after France's lackluster opener last Friday, a scoreless tie with Uruguay, Zidane himself disparaged the lack of team spirit and pointed the finger at Coach Raymond Domenech.

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It doesn't help that Domenech is despised by the French public. When France crashed out of the Euro 2008 tournament at the group stage, scoring only a single goal and no wins in three games, Domenech looked egregiously out of touch when he used the postgame interview to propose to his girlfriend live on TV. An astrology buff, Domenech has admitted that zodiac signs sometimes influence which players he selects. Whether the players themselves like their coach is a matter of debate, but Domenech long ago lost the public. His brother, Eric, told Le Parisien last week that he no longer attends international matches at the Stade de France, the Paris stadium where France won the World Cup trophy in 1998, "because of the insults." "If [Raymond] listened to everything people say about him, it would be enough for him to blow his brains out" says Domenech frère. "I can't wait for him not to be coach anymore and for this to stop."

In fact, it seems the only people who hate the French team more than the French themselves are the Irish. France's World Cup qualifying campaign was dreadful, requiring a last-ditch playoff against Ireland to decide which of the teams would travel to Africa. The French prevailed with their so-called Hand of Frog goal, striker Thierry Henry's scandalous unpenalized handball to clinch their qualification in overtime. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen called on French President Nicolas Sarkozy to organize a rematch. But FIFA, the sport's governing body, ruled out a do-over. Henry, the last of the generation that won the World Cup at home in 1998 and then the Euro 2000 tournament, has admitted he considered retiring from the national team in the onslaught of invective. Still, the accusation that Les Bleus cheated their way to South Africa hangs over the team like a cloud.

And so, while the French may be watching the World Cup, they are not doing so with much affection. Fifteen million tuned in for France's first game Friday night, a 57 percent audience share. But 79 percent of French people polled over the weekend said they don't feel close to their team. Still, some argue that France's lack of enthusiasm is actually quite normal. "For there to have been a falling out of love," writes LeMonde.fr's Erwan Le Duc, "there had to have been love. And that's far from clear in France. The exception isn't to see the French team mocked and criticized before a big tournament; it's actually pretty much the rule." The capricious French fans only want to get excited if they're sure Les Bleus will win handily, Le Duc argues. Commentators point out that the French—many of whom were first seduced by the game in 1998 with a World Cup at home and an exceptionally talented generation of players on the field—were spoiled by that heady era. Now, they demand the same level of exhilarating magic when real connoisseurs know success is cyclical at best. France "may be a land of football, but not of [football] fans. It has neither the culture nor the taste for it," Le Duc writes. And so, alas, it's not entirely about the hookers, the handballs, or the astrology. It's a French thing. "Je t'aime…moi non plus," and all that.