PARIS - French legislators huddled behind closed doors to investigate an issue of national importance — not terrorism or recession, but the French football team’s meltdown at the World Cup.
From taxi drivers to President Nicolas Sarkozy, France is taking the fiasco very close to heart and demanding answers. Wednesday’s extraordinary parliamentary session defied a warning by football’s governing body that political power shouldn’t meddle with sport.
For the French, this is about more than sports. It’s a blow to the national honor at a time when the country is already worried about its decline in the world. Football-proud England and Italy, too, are wondering whether their World Cup failures are glitches or a sign of a broader malaise.
The way France, winner of the 1998 World Cup and runner-up in 2006, left this year’s Cup hurt the French as much as the losing itself.
They finished the first round without a single victory, after players went on strike and refused to train because forward Nicolas Anelka was sent home for insulting the coach. Then there was coach Raymond Domenech’s last gesture at the Cup: refusing to shake hands with the rival coach after France’s final loss to South Africa.
Dubbed an “Affair of State” across front-page headlines for the past week, the debacle drove Sarkozy to summon an emergency meeting on French football, and Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot to trash the French team in parliament. Sarkozy has also announced a national symposium next October to rethink how national football is run.
On Wednesday, French lawmakers summoned Domenech and Federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes for a grilling on how it all went so spectacularly wrong.
All of the political involvement has led FIFA President Sepp Blatter to warn that the French team risks suspension from global tournaments if authorities intervene in the running of the national soccer federation.
Parliament doesn’t see it that way.
“It isn’t FIFA’s role to threaten French lawmakers; we’re in a democracy and parliamentarians have the right to hear anyone they want,” said lawmaker Eric Ciotti after Wednesday’s hearing.
“This isn’t just about football, it’s about France: It’s our honor that’s at stake,” added lawmaker Jacques Remiller. The exceptionally large turnout of journalists outside the hearing underscores what a national issue the team’s fiasco has become, Remiller pointed out as some 200 reporters haggled with lawmakers for news from the session.
Lawmakers insist they’re not investigating France’s poor sports showing or the coach’s dubious tactical decisions, but the team’s attitude and the incompetence of federation managers.
French voters are “asking us about it, not about the actual athletic defeat but about the moral defeat,” said Michel Herbillon, vice president of the Parliamentary Commission of Cultural and Educational Affairs, which held the hearing.
Domenech retires next month, Escalettes has announced he is resigning. But many French people are still angry at the team, and football talk is everywhere on the streets.
“More heads have to roll, it’s the whole system that’s rotten,” said Paris taxi driver Jean-Paul Poupin. He slammed Domenech’s “lack of fair play,” but most of his dismay was aimed at the once-cherished national team.
“With the money they earn, it’s outrageous that they go on strike,” said the cabbie, echoing widespread grumbling on the general state of French society.
The World Cup routing of England and Italy has also triggered soul-searching.
England’s 4-1 second-round defeat to old rival Germany sparked a fevered and doom-laden debate about the future of English football and its Italian coach, Fabio Capello.
A motion in the House of Commons called for an urgent inquiry to be held into the state of the national game and voiced “great disappointment at England’s pathetic exit.” The motion, signed by two lawmakers, says it firmly believes that “many Premier League players are grossly overpaid and under-perform.”
One potential candidate to replace Capello injected a slight tone of nationalism into the debate.
“Surely we have to find a manager from England, an English manager,” storied coach Harry Rednapp was quoted as saying in British media reports.
“I’m not talking about a Scottish manager or an Irish manager, I’m talking about an English manager because this is where we’re from, this is our country.”
The England players haven’t escaped censure, with most lamenting the stars’ inability to reproduce their English Premier League form at international level. They also came under criticism for ignoring fans after returning home from the tournament.
In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s has kept a low profile amid the team’s disastrous campaign.
But members of the right-wing Northern League party in his coalition have said Italy’s football failure is a sign that the country’s top-tier league is opening up too much to foreigners.
“By filling up our teams with foreigners, our football players have become useless,” Davide Cavallotto of the Northern League was quoted as saying in Corriere della Sera after Italy’s elimination.
Other Italian politicians said the players were often too old, with little room left for younger generations.
In Paris, after Wednesday’s hearing, Domenech and Espalettes left the National Assembly through a side door, carefully avoiding reporters.
Lawmakers said Domenech blamed L’Equipe newspaper, which printed details of Anelka’s expletive-laden tirade, for the disarray. Domenech also said the paper misquoted the player.
Lawmaker Lionel Tardy, reporting on the closed-door hearing live on Twitter, quoted Escalettes as voicing his “shame” at the “rotten, spoiled brats” on the French team.
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