Eight years on from their ignominious first-round exit at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, France have once again come up short in the group phase. After playing out a sterile 0-0 draw with Uruguay and falling 2-0 to Mexico, Les Bleus were put out of their misery by South Africa in Bloemfontein, a 2-1 defeat condemning them to bottom place in Group A.
Raymond Domenech made several changes ahead of the make-or-break match, bringing in Gael Clichy, Djibril Cisse and Sebastien Squillaci and appointing Alou Diarra captain. The reshuffle failed to pay dividends, however, as a glum France coach acknowledged to FIFA after the final whistle: “It’s a real disappointment, especially as we’d started the game so well.”
France’s promising start came to an abrupt end when Bongani Khumalo headed home Siphiwe Tshabalala’s corner to put the hosts ahead after 20 minutes. Worse was to follow just five minutes later when Yoann Gourcuff, recalled to the side after sitting out the Mexico match, was sent off for a foul on Macbeth Sibaya.
“Everything was going fine until fate conspired against us,” added Domenech. “First it was one thing and then another, and when it’s ten against 11 in those conditions it’s a totally different match. It makes it that bit harder.”
Florent Malouda, France’s sole goalscorer of the competition, offered up another explanation for his side’s untimely exit: “A lot of negative things came up to the surface too quickly. All the things that were happening off the pitch took over from our preparations and we paid the price for it.”
A new beginning
That price became heavier when Katlego Mphela prodded home from close range a few minutes before half-time, sparking delirious celebrations in the stands at the Free State Stadium. Bringing on Malouda at half-time, Domenech sought to revive his side, and it was the Chelsea man who gave Les Bleus a glimmer of hope when he rolled home a Franck Ribery pass with 20 minutes remaining.
That was as good as it got for the French, however, with Malouda providing a frank assessment of his side’s failings: “No player wants to go through a nightmare like this. We had high hopes but we messed it all up.
"The goal I scored doesn’t really mean anything. We wanted to win the match at least, but we’ve played badly in every game and I’m the first to admit I haven’t performed well. We haven’t even managed to prepare the ground for the post-Domenech era. We need to rebuild from scratch.”
Departing the scene for one last time, Domenech reflected on the future that awaits his now former charges, summoning up a message of optimism: “It’s the end of a cycle, but that’s all. The France team will never die, and I’d like to wish the very best of luck to the people who will now come in, especially to my successor.”