It was the last thing France fans wanted to hear.
"Some old demons have awoken."
So spoke France winger Florent Malouda during a Wednesday press conference following France's 2-0 loss to the already-ousted Sweden. He was referring, of course, to the forces that caused the French to humiliate themselves at the 2010 World Cup when some players went on strike for a training session in protest of Nicolas Anelka's getting kicked off the team, before knocking themselves out of the tournament's meek Group A.
Ahead of the Sweden matchup, the French had taken a lax approach to practice. And when they lost in embarrassingly docile fashion, things got heated in the locker room.
"We sent some missiles at each other," confided Malouda.
Hatem Ben Arfa told coach Laurent Blanc that if he really was so unhappy with his play, the coach ought to send him home, reports L'Equipe. And Samir Nasri chided Alou Diarra for not criticizing him with more respect. Indeed, much of the vitriol appeared to be aimed at the fiery Nasri, who shouted the French equivalent of "shut your yap" at cameras following his equalizing goal against England in France's 1-1 opening-game draw, apparently aimed at the oft-critical L'Equipe.
"We need a balance between individual objectives and the team's performance," said Malouda. It was a comment thought to be aimed at Nasri, who was said to be out merely for his own glory and negligent on more team-oriented tasks.
The French camp, naturally, shot into damage-control mode and paraded out assistant coach Alain Boghossian, who had incidentally been present during the 2010 revolt, to soothe the press and public.
"There were quarrels, well, let's say exchanges, but it's normal in a dressing room," he said in a press conference on Thursday. "It would have been worse if nothing had happened. It's like in a couple, if you sweep the problems under the rug, at some point, it will explode.
"There was a lot of frustration that had to be eliminated. Everyone said what they had to say. We start from scratch. Nothing is broken, it's quite the opposite. The fire has been put out."
The latter claim seems unlikely. These fires never go out entirely. The embers will glow, if below the surface, and re-erupt the next time the team has its back against the wall. And if Boghossian claims the discussion was cathartic, it nevertheless indicates that there had been friction all along.
The French incident confirms that management in international football has devolved to the mass massaging of egos. When the stronger countries assemble a de facto national all-star team, they have to meld a group of players almost universally accustomed to being top dog at their clubs. And some of them have to settle for supporting roles or, worse, a place on the bench or in the stands.
As egos continue to inflate in the me-first era -- where a plethora of media offer players an endless supply of attention -- forming cohesion among a group of stars is growing increasingly problematic. Holland playmaker Wesley Sneijder, who comes equipped with his own sizable self-esteem, warned ahead of the tournament that his peers would need to set aside their "pathetic egos." They didn't. After three quick losses and a humbling first-round elimination for the 2010 World Cup runners-up, word got out about a series of incidents and altercations, both verbal and physical. The points of contention: playing time and respect. In other words -- ego.
Almost all managers of major international soccer powers are known as good managers of players first and foremost. Holland coach Bert van Marwijk was hired on the strength of his knack for making big characters function symbiotically. Guus Hiddink, one of the most successful national team managers of the 2000s, is said to owe his achievements -- like pushing South Korea into the World Cup semifinals in 2002 -- to an exceptional talent for fostering male bonding, born from his having grown up with five brothers.
England manager Roy Hodgson has thus been vindicated in his unpopular decision to leave central defender Rio Ferdinand at home. He knew there would be friction between him and John Terry, who will soon stand trial for alleged racial abuse of Ferdinand's brother Anton during a game last season. He hid behind "footballing reasons," a much-derided label, but nevertheless headed off a potentially toxic situation at the pass.
"When you take on a national team, perhaps you take on more egos than you do in a club team," Hodgson told reporters ahead of England's win over Ukraine on Tuesday. "That hasn't been a factor, so I suppose in that respect I'm feeling good about the job."
While the complete disappearance of all ego seems implausible, all has been quiet -- for once -- in the English camp, while the Dutch and French have self-destructed.
Because in all likelihood, this Euro won't necessarily be won by the contender that's best at soccer but by the one that's best at keeping the egos in check.