France should forgive World Cup rebels

At the end of 90 ho-hum minutes that could be Exhibit A in an

argument about why countries should play fewer pointless soccer

friendlies, the two coaches who have a very big reason to never

again utter a kind word to each other came together for a

warm-looking tete-a-tete on the touchline.

If Laurent Blanc still bears a grudge against Croatia’s Slaven

Bilic for causing him to miss the biggest match of his career, the

1998 World Cup final, the former French defender who now manages

Les Bleus does a brilliant job of hiding it.

Bilic’s play-acting in the semifinal 13 years ago at the Stade

de France, the stadium where France met Croatia again this week,

was so disgraceful that it ranked at No. 37 in a compilation of 50

most shocking World Cup moments that the BBC broadcast last

year.

Jostling for Zinedine Zidane’s free kick, with France leading

2-1 after two unlikely goals from Lilian Thuram, Blanc shoved his

left palm hard into Bilic’s chest, just below his neck. Clutching

his right eye socket, the Croatian defender collapsed dramatically

to his knees, pretending he’d been whacked in the face. Blanc’s

subsequent red card, his only one in 97 appearances for his

country, meant he sat out the final against Brazil that France won

3-0.

For Blanc, that’s old history now. He promised before his

reunion with Bilic this week that he would shake the Croatian

coach’s hand. He kept his word. They spent a couple of minutes deep

in conversation, and Bilic draped a friendly hand on the back of

Blanc’s neck, after their teams played out a scoreless and soulless

halfhearted stalemate on Tuesday night.

Blanc’s magnanimity was good to see. All of France should take

note, because it is time for Blanc’s countrymen to show a similar

spirit of forgiveness to rebel French players who disgraced

themselves at the World Cup last year.

That fans were furious, that President Nicolas Sarkozy got

involved and that some critics called for life bans was

understandable. The players did, after all, behave like spoiled

brats in South Africa. Their televised rebellion, their refusal to

train and their group sulk on the team bus with curtains drawn

won’t and shouldn’t be quickly forgotten. Many angry words and

column inches were deservedly directed at all those who dirtied

France’s name.

Still, as with the Blanc-Bilic push-and-shove in 1998, it is

time to turn the page.

Those involved, with a few exceptions, have apologized for their

behavior in South Africa. Some were genuinely embarrassed and

almost certainly would not act so stupidly again. Most made the

peace gesture of renouncing financial bonuses. The supposed

ringleaders served bans.

Isn’t that enough? Apparently not.

Winger Franck Ribery, a 60th-minute substitute for Florent

Malouda, ran on to a gale of whistles on Tuesday night. It is not

pretty when a crowd of 60,000 gangs up on one person. It takes

neither brains nor courage.

Yet when he wriggled away from his Croatian marker and passed

sweetly to Samir Nasri a few minutes later, chants of ”Ribery!

Ribery!” started in a section of the ground. So the crowd was

fickle, too. The genuine anger that many in France felt last

summer, even those who are not soccer fans, risks evolving into

cheap pantomime. Ribery was the fans’ villain and easy target on

Tuesday night. Next match, it could be someone else if they don’t

learn how to forgive.

The fleet, inventive Bayern Munich player said afterward he’d

been bracing for a rough reception because it was his first home

game for France since he ended his three-match ban.

”There were whistles, of course. That’s normal. I think I was

prepared for it. Now, most of all, I’m very happy about how the

public reacted as the match went on. It gave me more confidence,”

he said. ”This evening was a stage I had to go through, playing at

the Stade de France, facing my public.”

Blanc believes that, with time, the fans will become more

forgiving. ”Things will get better, you’ll see,” he said.

Still, Les Bleus walked off the field to jeers. French fans seem

to have more fun knocking and mocking their team than getting

behind it. Hard to believe that this stadium where Thuram became

king for the day with his semifinal goals and where Zidane headed

in twice in the final was once the theater of so much French

joy.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org