Is this Man the Worst Soccer Coach Ever? Or just the Weirdest?
Public figures who never answer for their failures, or worse, fail upwards, inspire a specific kind of resentment. It’s like a combination of righteous indignation and filial jealousy. Certainly, there are plenty of people who would like to see a private circle of hell set aside for Paul Wolfowitz or Joe Lieberman, or maybe Michael Bay (Dante said the eighth circle is reserved for the fraudulent; maybe they could all share their own ditch?) but no matter how reasonable, even incontrovertible the case may be against them, the anger they inspire is essentially puerile—a feeling that they must be punished, because otherwise it’s just not fair.
It’s when the job qualifications don’t seem particularly high that the anger can turn really toxic. Few would consider themselves fit to head the World Bank, for example, or direct a $100+ million dollar motion picture, but plenty of folks feel they could coach a soccer team. This is why Raymond Domenech, coach of the French national soccer team, inspires such fanatical loathing in French fans. And ever since the French team’s embarrassing victory over the Irish in November, the chorus of armchair coaches has been calling for his head. (More on this is a moment.)
Mr. Domenech has coached les Bleus, as the French team is known, since 2004. Things were rocky from the start. That year, les Bleus struggled to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Zinedine Zidane, or Zizou as he’s known, came out of retirement just to play the tournament, and thanks to his brilliant on-field leadership, the team rallied. They upset Brazil, who were favored to win in the quarterfinals, before narrowly losing to Italy on tiebreaker penalties in the final match of the World Cup. Few, of course, credited Domenech, since Zizou was the superstar—one of that rarified group that includes Maradona and Pelé. Crediting Domenech would have been like blaming the Bulls’ success on Phil Jackson. Anyway, Zidane’s performance in the last three games of the cup was characteristically intense and inspired, right up to his ejection from the final match for head-butting Marco Materazzi in response to an alleged racist taunt. (The French of course promptly forgave him his inglorious exit.)
Not so Mr. Domenech, who lost whatever flimsy halo he had garnered just two years later. At the 2008 European football championships, les Bleus, sans Zizou, were shown a humiliating exit from the first round. First the Dutch dealt them their worst tournament loss in over 30 years—a 4-1 drubbing. After the Italians spanked them 2-0, Mr. Domenech’s term as coach seemed in doubt. France Soir, the French daily, ran a cover that implored him: Resign! But Mr. Domenech hung on. French soccer’s governing body, the French Football Federation (FFF), decided, not entirely without reason, that the coach who took les Bleus to finals of the 2006 World Cup deserved another shot.
Then in 2009, history repeated itself: France again struggled to qualify for the World Cup. Les Bleus barely managed to squeak into the tournament, defeating the Irish on a winning goal scored by William Gallas, off an assist by striker Thierry Henry, who obviously and egregiously hand-balled, twice, yet got away with it. It was an embarrassing way to win. The French had played a lackluster, disorganized game against a lesser Irish team. And many, including France largest sports daily, L’Equipe, fingered Domenech. Former French national player Eric Cantona said, “I think that Raymond Domenech is the worst coach in French football since Louis XVI.”
Of course, you’re only as good as your last win; that truth haunts every coach in every sport. But this doesn’t fully explain Mr. Domenech’s vilification. It’s his style. Many are baffled by his tactics, which he never deigns to explain. The roster of players he calls up for the national team is often quirky and inexplicable, and bizarrely, influenced by astrology. He once blamed his stormy relationship with veteran winger Robert Pirès on the fact that Pirès is a Scorpio. Also, he’s admitted that he thinks Leos aren’t good defenders. “When I’ve got a Leo on defense, I’ve always got my gun ready” he once said. “I know he’s going to want to show off at one moment or another and cost us.” It must be quite a source of anxiety for him, seeing as how William Gallas, a Leo, anchors the French defense.
But one gets the sense, watching his press conferences, that anxiety and self-reflection are regions Domenech never really visits. He seems to prefer self-regard to self-criticism. But hey, who doesn’t? In his case, however, it’s a question of degree. Unlike lesser coaches, who when asked whether they intended to resign after a humiliating loss to the Italians in the Euro Cup might use a press conference to, say, explain what happened, Domenech chose the moment to propose to his girlfriend, French TV personality Estelle Denis. “I have only one project,” he answered reporters, “to marry Estelle, which is what I’m asking her today.” Unsurprisingly, the French media pounced on the comments as inappropriate, but he was unapologetic. “Everything was so sad,” he later explained. “I thought life has some beautiful moments and you should tell people you love them. I wanted to show some emotion.”
To his credit, Mr. Domenech has proved an occasionally inspired talent scout, despite (or who knows, maybe because of?) his mystical hiring policies. He has definitely unearthed a few diamonds among the unknowns called up to the national team, such as strikers Andre-Pierre Gignac (Sagittarius) and Bafetimbi Gomis (Leo). For the 2006 World Cup, Domenech famously rejected veteran Barcelona winger Ludovic Giuly in favor of an untested midfielder from Marseille named Franck Ribery. Ribery is now regarded as one of the best French midfielders of his generation. He’s also an Aries.
Yet the problem for the beleaguered French coach is that, considering the star-studded squad he manages, anything less than strong results in the World Cup in South Africa this June will probably dissatisfy French fans. According to Futebol Finance, as of March 2009, six of the 50 highest paid players in the world wear the tricolor jersey. That compares to seven for the absolutely awesome Spanish side and eleven for perennially disappointing England. Yet, if you believe in the predictive power of markets, then maybe this will be the year for the richly remunerated English. (The English could actually win. Yes, it is possible.) World Cup favorites Brazil have just 5 players on that list (except, two of them are Kaka and Robihno, nuff said.)
There may be hope for the French, considering how poorly they performed during the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, and that worked out. Yes, but they had Zizou. This time, the stars and planets may not align for Domenech.
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