Excerpt:

The affair has provoked much agonised introspection. Aime Jacquet, the victorious 1998 coach, said he was "ashamed", describing the team as "the laughing stock of the world". Le Monde, the bible of the Paris intellectual, described the team as "a mirror of French society today. Dominated by tormented egos and star salaries, cut off from the reality of the country and their fans, split into clans". Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister, called it "an appalling soap opera". Jacques Attali, an economic adviser to the president, hoped that the affair would "act as a wake-up call" and show the French they could no longer "be satisfied with past glories…glory is the worst enemy of power, and nostalgia the worst poison for the future."

The debacle, and the reaction to it, says as much about French neuroses as it does about football. First, there is the prickly matter of race and religion. Most of the French squad are black, and many are Muslim, including Mr Anelka, who is a convert to Islam, as is Franck Ribery, who is white. The 1998 triumph was hailed at the time as a turning point: the country finally recognising, and celebrating, its multicultural make-up. Since then, between banlieue riots and talk of burqa bans, France has struggled to integrate its minorities. (Of the 23-man Algerian squad, 17 are French-born.) The team seems to reflect these tensions, with rumours of tribal divisions. Sensitivities are so acute that to criticise the players' values, discipline or team spirit—one philosopher called them "a gang of yobs with the morals of the mafia"—is to be accused of racism.


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