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
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
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
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
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org