World Cup Woes Spark Indignation In France

Indignation is on the menu in France, where the country is talking derisively about its drama-filled failure of a World Cup soccer team. France was eliminated from the World Cup on Tuesday after losing to South Africa. It was the last chance the team had to redeem itself after days of controversy. Michele Norris talks with Francois Picard, host of the French television talk show The France 24 Debate about how the scandal is playing out at home.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

French soccer fans now have yet another reason to be disgusted and indignant as their team lost to South Africa today. The two-to-one defeat means France is eliminated from World Cup competition and heading home in disgrace.

There has been much drama. The team disappointed when it tied Uruguay and lost to Mexico. Star striker Nicolas Anelka insulted the team coach in a tirade filled with expletives, and he was sent home. Then his teammates refused to train Sunday in protest.

Francois Picard hosts a French television talk show called "The France 24 Debate." Four years ago, France finished as the World Cup runner-up. They won in 1998. What on Earth went wrong this time?

Mr. FRANCOIS PICARD (Host, "The France 24 Debate"): You know, Michele, we don't do half measures in this country. It's either all or nothing. This was a - I guess, you could say less than nothing.

Really, the implosion began a long time ago, and it didn't bode well, of course, that we qualified thanks to what was an obvious handball against Ireland. That was then followed by a prostitution scandal on the eve of the World Cup involving some of the players, and the general sentiment that the coach had lost the dressing room long time ago, that he was no longer the man in charge, and that mutiny and - in this country, we felt like it was a slow motion car crash that everybody was rubbernecking to watch played out on the world stage.

NORRIS: There's this wonderful image that accompanies the World Cup, and it's people all over the globe watching the play in bars, in hair salons - and I guess in the case of France - in cafes. What's been the reaction there, the people watching this team in this, as you say, slow motion car wreck?

Mr. PICARD: Well, it's been divided, I guess, according to your political persuasion. If you're on the right, you're saying these players acted like hoodlums and are the mirror of a youth that doesn't respect authority. Now, if you're on the left, people were saying, oh, they mirror the government in France, which has just announced austerity measures, has just announced it's going to raise the retirement age, but its own ministers continue to lead a posh lifestyle. And basically, the football team is out of touch with the rest of society.

NORRIS: You know, this is about sport to some degree, but it sounds like there's a totally different undercurrent beneath all this. It's about race and class and lots of other things.

Mr. PICARD: Well, we always project, don't we, on our national team what we want. In this case, the narrative of the World Cup victory in 1998 was based on this concept of black, blond, beurre, that this national team, because there are players who are white, players that are black and players of North African origin, Arabs, that this was a symbol of France's integration. So there was this heavy symbolism read into the team.

NORRIS: Has this been personally difficult for you to watch, tears in your (unintelligible)?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PICARD: You know, before the match, I was just hoping that it would be mercifully over quickly. And I was actually saying: I hope South Africa win the game because they're a small footballing nation. They're a great host, and it's a nice story if they win. But then, of course, once the match began, France is the team I supported since I was a child and you just - you're torn. There's a part of you that can't help but root for your national team.

NORRIS: Well, condolences to you. Thanks so much for making time to talk to us.

Mr. PICARD: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Francois Picard hosts a French television talk show called "The France 24 Debate."

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