To France, World Cup performance is important yardstick of success

Players and fans from around the world prepare for the June 11 opening of World Cup 2010 in South Africa.
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010

PARIS -- These are rancorous days in France, with deep divisions over Islamic veils, retirement pensions and tenacious unemployment. But if there is one thing French people can agree on, it is the overriding importance of the national soccer team.

The team's performance at the World Cup in South Africa is seen as a vital measure of French standing among nations.

Former president Jacques Chirac, then slumping in the polls, rebounded spectacularly the last time France won the Cup, in 1998. Basking in the glow, he adopted a new political slogan, "the France that wins," seeking to capitalize on a revitalized national spirit and transfer it to the economical and political arenas.

Although the soccer fever did little to boost Chirac's standing in the long term, the team's performance is still of vital concern. According to a recent poll, three-quarters of France's 64 million people plan to watch the World Cup games on television. Among them will be President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's successor, an ardent nationalist and an eager soccer fan.

Already, therefore, the 23-man French team is being obsessively reported on, photographed and analyzed. The choice of the final lineup was revealed two weeks ago in a nationally televised declaration by the coach, Raymond Domenech, that was surrounded with regal solemnity and shattered records for the number of people who tuned in.

Domenech, a gray-haired Lyon native who himself played in past World Cups, was referred to on the government-run all-news radio station recently as "our national Raymond," even though he is widely criticized as undemonstrative for the soccer-loving public and uninspiring for the players.

This being France, just because Domenech and the national soccer team are considered important does not mean they are beloved.

Indeed, a perception has grown in recent years that France's increasingly well-paid soccer players are spoiled playboys, closer to their sports cars than their fans and unworthy of the affection poured on them by reporters.

"This team does not like the public," declared the former tennis star Yannick Noah, who is ranked in polls as one of the most popular people in France even though he spends most of his time in the United States.

The deputy minister for sports, Rama Yade, said recently she had intervened with the French Soccer Federation to get the team to open up more to the public. "I told them, 'Open the show window,' " she said. "People are fascinated. They want to know what the players are doing, to hear them express themselves."

In particular, she said, the team has been criticized for refusing to acknowledge its fans after a match by chatting and signing autographs. To counter that impression, several players went out of their way during a get-to-know-you session at an Alpine resort recently to pause on the way to their luxury cars -- or chartered helicopters -- and respond to fans lined up for a glimpse of their favorites.

Despite the gestures, however, the regular-guys campaign faced a particular difficulty as the team went through its training routine.

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