When you walk through 'The Storm'...
It is a plot-line worthy of the best spy thrillers. An employee clandestinely records a conversation between illustrious and influential colleagues to reveal the true inner workings of a major organisation. The French Football Federation (FFF) may not be as nefarious as the CIA, the KGB and any number of political parties, but its raison d'etre is currently being brought under the most merciless scrutiny.
In recording a three-hour meeting at the FFF's Paris headquarters last November, Mohamed Belkacemi has - unwittingly it seems - unleashed a debate that could see Laurent Blanc's promising reign at the head of the national side brought to an abrupt and highly controversial end. The reason is 'quotas', a word previously the sole concern of European Union milk producers, but now on the tongue of every French football fan.
What Belkacemi recorded was a high-level discussion, which Blanc attended, in which the prospect of fixing a limit on the number of players with dual nationalities that would be accepted into youth academies was floated. The argument being that France is losing too many of these players to other nations after having trained them up to a high level. Belkacemi, the assistant coach of France's Under-21 futsal team and heavily involved in working in some of the country's most deprived areas, gave the recording to a heavyweight FFF official, André Prévosto, the following day. The story - claims Belkacemi - has broken almost six months later without his help, as his sole intention was for the matter to be dealt with "internally".
The theories of 'why now?' are numerous, not the least of which are the FFF presidential elections next month. The incumbent, Fernand Duchaussoy, has threatened legal action against anyone who accuses him of covering up the story before it was published by Mediapart, an on-line paper, last Thursday. Regardless, the scandal has harmed his reputation, though it also tarnishes that of FFF Vice-President Noël Le Graët, the man expected to challenge Duchaussoy in the poll.
Perhaps the most significant effect, however, has been the bringing into question of Blanc's reputation and his role in the affair, which is being investigated by both a governmental and FFF enquiry. Blanc's annual R&R trip to Italy this week is impeccably timed given 'The Storm', as L'Equipe termed it on Thursday, caused by his apparent support for the quota, which would almost exclusively affect youngsters of African origin.
Blanc is reported to have been "very favourable" to the idea, which - it was suggested - would fix the maximum of dual nationality players admitted at 30%. "I've had discussions with Laurent Blanc, and I got the impression that he's very tolerant, and that's why I'm surprised to see him branded a racist," said Alou Diarra, Blanc's France and Bordeaux captain and one of the players who could have been affected by such a quota given his Malian roots. "Colour and origins have never been selection criteria for him, unlike footballing qualities."
It is in Diarra's final statement that it seems Blanc's true aims in reforming the system of formation, literally the 'forming' of young players, lies. If you look at the problem of losing youngsters to other countries, the phenomenon has not really diminished France's chances of winning major tournaments. Only Marouane Chamakh, French-born but who opted to play for Morocco, immediately springs to mind as a 'one that got away' who would have been worth catching in the first place. Would France have won the World Cup if Zidane, Djorkaeff, Desailly, and Vieira had opted to play for the countries of their origins and - in the latter pair's case - their birth? Probably not, but the truth is that if a young French-born player is good enough, he will almost certainly opt to play for France.
Blanc's concerns appear to be more the type of player that France's vaunted academies are now producing, ironically heavily influenced by the athletic 1998 World Cup-winning squad that he himself was part of. Expressed foolishly and clumsily in the meeting - "The Spanish say, 'We don't have a problem. We don't have any black players.'" - Blanc explained his position in more appropriate terms at a hastily organised press conference last week.
"I just want us not to discard young players who don't necessarily have athletic qualities," he said. "It's easy to say that it's discriminatory, but it's also discriminatory today for very good young players who have not made it because physical and athletic criteria were predominant. We mustn't base everything on those criteria."
Even a cursory glance at Ligue 1, a division with more huffing and puffing than the 'Three Little Pigs' and where moments of pure brilliance are rare, suggests Blanc has a point.
"Each time, it was because of the same thing: my size. It was tough to take, and I quickly understood that I had to leave. In France, nothing would have ever come of it," said Antoine Griezmann, Real Sociedad's 1.74m French midfielder, who was recently praised publicly by Pep Guardiola. "I can only agree with [Blanc]. In Spain, they don't give a hoot about physique, yet they're world champions. Same thing at Barca. They're all small, but they're the best team in the world."
Damaging revelations continue to be made, however. The most recent shows that Francois Blaquart, successor to Gérard Houllier as the FFF's influential Directeur technique national, had calculated the number of dual-nationals currently representing France from Under-16 to Under-21 level, and presented them under the heading "Players representing French national teams who could at any time opt to play for another country."
If verified as genuine, it gives major credence to Belkacemi's claims that he had decided to record the meeting because of the "indescribable statements I had already heard" in previous meetings. It also seriously undermines the claims of France's current Under-21 coach, Erick Mombaerts, that the discussion of quotas was "pub talk".
Blaquart has already been suspended, and while his and Mombaerts' jobs are undoubtedly in jeopardy, Blanc's is too. The 1998 World Cup-winning squad, supposed to be THE example of French multiculturalism - termed 'Black, Blanc, Buer' in reference to the team's origins - has been very publicly split on the matter.
While Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry have backed Blanc, Patrick Vieira described Blanc's comments as "scandalous" while Lilian Thuram has been highly critical of his former team-mate, though both have been quick to state they did not believe Blanc is racist. Now a respected pundit, Emmanuel Petit has called on Zinedine Zidane to throw in his two penneth worth to calm things down.
Dugarry also raised the prospect of Blanc, who has promisingly put together the pieces of Raymond Domenech's tenure and the infamous World Cup strike, jumping rather than being pushed. "I'm afraid that he's sick of it," said the well-travelled World Cup and Euro 2000 winner. "I hope it's not too late. He doesn't need my support, but I'm afraid for French football, afraid for him, afraid that we'll descend into chaos again."
Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno has said she has spoken to Blanc this week and that 'resignation' did not enter the conversation. A poll in Friday's L'Equipe came out 81% in favour of Blanc to stay, but with the story spinning further out of control by the day, popular backing may not be enough to keep him in the job.