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The Dreadful French

Soccer is a dreadful game, and I mean that in the best way. There is beauty, to be sure, and we’ve seen some (well, a little) so far. But what makes the sport so desperately engaging for me, and maybe a lot of fans, is the creeping horror that can build over the course of a second half. Yes, every sport has a final period and can end on a last second field goal or three-point play or run batted in. But, I would argue, in no other is the suspense as drawn out as it is in soccer. And if you have spent years watching the United States play, then the suspense is agonizing. Please, please, please don’t screw up—that’s our silent cheer. And yet the tense in that plea is all important: the mantra is based on the possibility that there is something to screw up. Our dread is, if this is possible, of a positive sort.

Now, since I work for a very nice French company, and since my wonderful French-fluent wife lived in Paris, and because for a while the French made some amazing movies, and because they helped us out during the American Revolution, I love France. And for a long time, I’ve loved their soccer. Every so often, when I want to work on my French language skills, I’ll buy a copy of Football France, partly because I like to follow the French leagues and national squad, and partly because you don’t need much of a vocabulary to read league tables. But this is a wretched time to be a fan of French soccer.

On paper, as nearly everyone has noted, France should be a winner. On the field, they are a nightmare. Liberté, égalité, fraternité …uh, I don’t think so. More like imbécillité, mystère, ennemi. (If my French here is bad, blame Football France.) Here we have players (past and present) publicly calling the team manager an idiot, vocally questioning his lineup choices. We have players shunning certain teammates in the locker room. You have players who refuse to play in positions that would be better for the team because it might mean that they would have to pass to players they don’t like. (Hello, Mr. Ribéry!) Now, with the manager, they have a point. Domenech is an idiot, for many reasons, least of which is that he uses astrology to help pick his lineups. (Perhaps he should coach North Korea: with no electricity, their night sky is much more visible than that in his native land.) He is not to blame for France’s bizarre shirts (what’s with the backpack straps?), nor is he to blame for the many swollen egos and nasty tempers that he has to deal with, but he certainly hasn’t helped much with the latter, likely because he, too, has a pretty inflated sense of self, and because as a tactician he is among the worst in the world, ranked well below the coach at your high school. (And I guarantee the accuracy of this statement no matter where you went to high school.)

So all of that should make for some drama, right? The stuff of reality TV on Canal HD? Except this team is a train without wheels—no big crash is possible. There is no real drama, because there is no excitement, no potential, no stakes. If much of your emotional engagement with the sport has something in common with a fan of horror movies, in that it makes you beyond anxious, unable to avert your eyes though you wish you could, praying for time to pass at an unnatural rate, grinning and clammy as you might before your first parachute jump, then you want a team that has a chance to blow it. If you have nothing to lose, there’s no point.

Which takes me back to dread. Perhaps France had a chance against Mexico today; some part of me (left toenail?) certainly had hoped so, mostly because I hate any and all Mexican national teams. To be sure, there were questions, mostly about whether Domenech really had made up with Malouda (which he had, thanks to Malouda’s sudden profession of support), and whether he would bother to make a single timely substitution (which he did not). Yet the answers seemed beside the point, like swatting rain drops. There was no escape, everything was foregone, no real chance of redemption barring a holy miracle—and secular France just isn’t gonna get that sort of heavenly assistance. Maybe those strange straps on the French kit make sense, after all: This team arrived in South Africa already packed to go home.

Fundamentally, suspense depends on the withholding of information. In this World Cup, rooting for France is dreadful in the least positive sense, one predicated not on faint hope, but deflated acceptance. Why Domenech has this job or any other requiring a semblance of authority is a mystery. How fitting that he of astrology is an Aquarius: the sign of the water carrier.

If there is anything the French should take back from this Cup, I’d recommend that now fashionable (thank you, Doc Rivers!) Southern African concept of ubuntu. There certainly won’t be a highlight reel to carry, and an approach built around lack of ego, recognition of connectedness, and affirmation of others would be welcome. (And ubuntu would be one less French word for me to learn.)

I hope next time they will scare me.