How to lose a World Cup match with savoir-faire

Without wishing to sound too much like Rex Harrison, let me ask this: Why can’t the English be more like the French?

There they hold bosses hostage until they accede to revolutionary demands, namely: 1) recognition that working on Friday afternoons or Monday mornings is an insult to everything the soixante-huitards fought for; and 2) the office must be airlifted next door to the boulangerie where they bake really good pain aux amandes.

These life-affirming, economy-destroying attitudes also explain why the French football team has crashed in South Africa. If there is anything more likely to fill English fans with joie de jolly old vivre than elegant Frenchmen immolating themselves on a bonfire they created, we don’t care to hear about it. Certainly not when the British government’s axe is on our throat and what remains of English masculinity depends on a football match between England and a team from a tiny country most couldn’t pick out on a map.

How much we envy the French and their grands gestes! How much England yearns to do what the French did in 1998 — to win the World Cup with a mixed-race team that seemed to symbolise a post-colonial rainbow nation at ease with its manifold differences (nearly 180 degrees from the truth about modern France, but let’s not spoil the narrative). How much we’d like to have the cavalier attitude towards victory France had in 2006, when their greatest footballer sent his team crashing out of a World Cup final by headbutting an opponent who’d insulted his sister.

The moment that catalysed the current French revolution went like this.

At half-time, coach Raymond Domenech, like Sergeant Wilson in the TV series Dad’s Army, spoke to striker Nicolas Anelka: “Dear fellow, tiny change in tactics. Would you mind awfully playing down the right side rather than the left in the second half?”

To which Anelka replied: “Never! I will kill you and your extended family if you address me in such terms again, espèce de connard!”

Then the team, led to the barricades by captain Patrice Evra, refused to train, willing themselves to collective oblivion rather than, like England’s team, drifting towards it with constipated expressions on beefy faces.

Contrast Anelka’s outrage with the English footballer John Terry’s bat squeak of player protest. He told a press conference, effectively, that the hotel’s towels were too rough. Then, at Fabio Capello’s insistence, he recanted, saying that actually the towels had been tumble-dried to a turn. All it takes for an English revolution to collapse is a boss with bad English, enviable posture and a Hobbesian grasp of what it takes to crush the quivering masses of the footballing Leviathan.

But there is more to the French disaster than a tradition of revolutionary resistance. There is what French philosopher Alain Badiou calls “the sacrificial temptations of nothingness”. “Failing” is always very close to “winning”, Badiou writes in The Communist Hypothesis. Tell that to Paris, Alain.

He has a point, though. “One of the great Maoist slogans of the ‘red years’ was ‘Dare to struggle and dare to win’. But we know that it is not easy to follow that slogan when subjectivity is afraid, not of fighting, but of winning.” This may explain the French team’s psychology. Why would the French fear victory? Because, following Badiou, they see that triumph is only temporary, an imposter.

There is a parallel between France’s revolutions and its footballing triumphs: neither endure. And one response to that unpalatable truth is to choose defeat in a gesture Jean-Paul Sartre would have appreciated. If that’s what happened, respect to the French: what a wonderfully existentialist way to go. —

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