An American with no street cred whatsoever writing about the World Cup may be a dangerous thing. While I am a fan, I cannot pretend to understand the subtleties of a game I did not ever play much. And certainly I barely understand the arcane workings of FIFA, the governing body of the World Cup competition. But I cannot resist wading in. Not about the football, but about the sad implosion that is the French team.
The meltdown of the French has been painful and gruesome to watch. While only those involved directly know what really happened (despite the very public nature of the revolt) there are some powerful lessons to be taken for leaders who deal with very high-pressure situations. If you are not following the cup, take a moment and go to this article for a briefing about the goings on.
Lesson One: Karma Matters- So Does Hubris
The French squad should not have been in South Africa at all. In a final qualifier against Ireland, French star Thierry Henry’s clear hand ball violation set up a winning goal for France, eliminating Ireland from the World Cup and sending France on to South Africa. FIFA is not the NFL. There are no replays or appeals. So France got a lucky break and Ireland has to live with it. That, if nothing else, should have set the French up to respect their good fortune and honor both the spirit of the event as well as the randomness that could have as easily gone the other way and eliminated them. After all, even if you do not get caught until after the match, it is still cheating.
Lesson Two: Making Private Disputes Public is Like Throwing Gasoline on a Fire
There are plenty of reports of foment and unhappiness between players and the French coach Raymond Domenech before the altercation between he and Nicolas Anelka. Whether this was a clash of two large egos destined to get out of hand or an example of an escalating amygdala hijack, only those in the room would know. Either way, once it was public, the stakes for taking a deep breath and appearing weak by “backing down” went way up. What was a private agreement between player and coach, no matter how toxic, was just that – private. Just as telling others about personal goals makes a development process a bigger game, so does airing a spat publicly.
Lesson Three: Sometimes Leading Means Being the First to Offer a Hand in Concession.
I have often written here about the unseen emotional material that drives and ongoing conflict. Opposing groups get into a pattern that is self-reinforcing and as such only escalates. This was a perfect storm for a meltdown as well as an opportunity for Domenech to model mature leadership. He was the picture of a lame duck. The French football organization had already replaced him with former captain Laurent Blanc. He had nothing to gain by insisting on being right. Like Odysseus on his first stop after Troy, he had no control of his troops. And like Odysseus it cost him. By insisting that Anelka apologize, he set up an impossible condition (and got the opportunity to be righteous about it on TV). Rather than swallow his pride, Anelka got on a plane for London. Even if Domenech was right, his choice of strategy made him look petty and did not get him control of his troops. The team demonstrated their disdain, in the clothing of support for their teammate, by boycotting an official practice. After all “Le Greve” (going on strike) is practically a national pastime in France. And to be certain their disdain was clear, they turned in what can only charitably termed a lackluster showing in their final match against host, South Africa.
And if Domenech had supporters in his corner, he likely did them no favors either by refusing to shake the hand of the South African coach at the end of what was the final defeat for France. His focus was so clearly on disappearing that he managed to add insult to injury at an event he would have done better to respect.
I do not mean to ignore the players’ role in this. One would hope that superstars who play for such powerhouses as Manchester United, Barcelona, Arsenal and Chelsea would shown more respect for the game and for the event, if not for themselves. One can expect that a group of major talents would also include major ego’s. Clearly Anelka could have swallowed his own pride and apologized. But if the bigger outcome is to restore the French team’s morale to put them in fighting form for the event, it was the coach who had everything to gain and little to lose by extending an olive branch.
Lesson Four: A Toxic Environment Spreads Fast
While the initial drama was between a star player and the coach, multiple conflicts broke out feeding the toxicity of the environment. A row between the team captain and the fitness coach was very public, fanned by the players’ attention to the adoring crowd at a public workout where they refused to train. Conflict that has become personal allowed to fester will destroy any camaraderie or team spirit by feeding on itself. And like a small child, the more it is ignored, the greater the escalation will become. Have a look at the Youtube clip and you can see the enmity and disdain feed each other.
All of this has had a bad ending for the team, the coach and the country. Even the involvement of the Minister of Sport (yes, they have one in France) and Nicolas Sarkozy himself made no difference. And the war is not over. Rather than returning in first class on an Airbus 380 as they went to South Africa, the French team traveled back on a cheap and not-so-cheerful coach charter, booked at the last minute. It is a sad state for a country that has been a powerhouse in the sport for decades.
Lastly- I could not help but notice a missed opportunity. Where was Laurent Blanc? I do not know much about him- except that he is now the new coach. What could his voice and his presence have done? Could he have been the person who could have put the vision of the French side as a competitor of class and capability in front of the personal squabbles? We will not know since he passed on any visible attempt to make a difference.