This week’s international matches are wedged into a window seemingly designed to provoke the ire of club managers, and of those who frequently question the worth of national team friendlies. Yet a brief look at a few of the national federations’ recent actions and at the players who won’t be involved this week debunks the idea that the international game has become a matey, social kickabout.
It certainly shouldn’t be, and the French Football Federation were keen to emphasise this point last week. They punished a quintet of players from their under-21 setup that left their training camp to go out clubbing three days before a defeat to Norway which means they won’t compete in next summer’s European Championship in Israel.
So Antoine Griezmann, Wissam Ben Yedder, Chris Mavinga and M’Baye Niang have been suspended from any involvement with France representative sides until the end of 2013, while their supposed ringleader, Yann M’Vila has a ban stretching until June 30 2014.
Domestically, the mood is one of shock. “It’s heavy, said Loïc Rémy, the Marseille and France striker. “We all make mistakes.” The ripples have moved across the continent, with the bans described as “very severe” by Sunderland’s Louis Saha, while Franck Ribéry, no stranger to run-ins with the FFF himself, has shown sympathy for M’Vila in particular.
“It’s certain that he deserved a punishment,” said Ribéry, “but maybe a fine instead. It’s frankly too much.” If we rewind to the 2010 World Cup, it was Ribéry on the rack, wandering onto the set of a live broadcast of French television channel TF1’s iconic Sunday morning show Téléfoot in his flip-flops to emotionally defend himself.
All of the draconian measures of today have their root in that France training camp in Knysna, South Africa, where the “Bus of Shame” episode occurred, with the players infamously refusing to get off and train in sympathy with the banished Nicolas Anelka.
It became a national scandal, with a governmental enquiry opened. You would have thought the political classes had better things to do in today’s economic climate, but now the FFF is obsessed with being seen to have a no tolerance policy to these perceived ills of society, rather than actually doing the right thing. To underline the current climate of hysteria, the presumed main protagonist in Knysna, captain Patrice Evra, received a five-match ban.
These five young men made a mistake. Like Eden Hazard when he nipped out of the stadium for burger with his dad after being substituted playing for Belgium against Turkey last year, they were foolish. They were not evil or malicious, and there is a strong sense that a few drinks (even unauthorised) a significant period before the game would not have been such a big deal had they and their colleagues not succumbed to such a shock defeat in the match in question.
So who is actually worth looking to for some moral guidance in international football? Perhaps Cesare Prandelli, who left no less a figure than Daniele De Rossi out of his squad to face France tonight after the Roma man was red-carded for aiming a pair of left-handers at Lazio counterpart Stefano Mauri in Sunday’s derby.
The former Fiorentina coach has a clear, face-to-face disciplinary policy based on common sense. If you step out of line for your club, you’ll be dropped for the next game, but he won’t hold it against you. Prandelli has no need for disciplinary charters or headline-grabbing flourishes, even with the likes of Mario Balotelli in his midst. Whatever the form of discipline is, it does at least remind us that international football is still a big deal.