By Roger Cohen, from the New York Times:

Just when you thought France could sink no further, it discovers improbable new depths to plumb thanks to outgoing coach Raymond Domenech, whose gift for combining the imperious, the inept and the insulting has few equals in sporting history.

No wonder President Nicolas Sarkozy has called crisis ministerial meetings on the French World Cup debacle. The daily Le Monde went further, drawing parallels between this “strange defeat” and another, on the front lines of 1940.

It noted the “absence of a leader, a strategy, team spirit, effectiveness, these wasted talents, these unused resources and finally, this crushing failure” — all appearing as a “cruel metaphor” for a nation unable to “mobilize its energies.”

Yeah, football’s only a game. Sure. No, it is war by other means, hence all the military epithets — “deserters,” “mutineers” — raining down on the players who have shamed “la France” on the world’s most-watched stage.

Worse, they have done so as the great rival in the contest for global radiance (and post-1940 savior), the United States, has thrived by doing the exact opposite of France: making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I’ll return to team U.S.A., but first Domenech.

I watched him here in central South Africa — little Vegas on the veld — as he declined, after France’s exit, to explain why he had insulted the host nation by refusing to shake the hand of its coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira. A little smirk played on the tight lips of the gray-haired Gaul as he deconstructed his notion of “dignity” in defeat: Seldom have I struggled so keenly to repress violent urges at a press conference.

Domenech was a disaster, a little man in a big job and one in need of a good smack, but there’s more to the demise of “Les Bleus” than him.

How did the great “black-blanc-beur” (“black-white-North African”) winners of the 1998 World Cup — beacons for the French model of integration — turn into this feud-racked band of brats?

How, in just 12 years, did the victorious France of Lilian Thuram, Fabien Barthez and Zinédine Zidane become this imploding team where no middle ground binds the Muslim boys from the suburban projects and the clean-cut, middle-class French lad — Yoann Gourcuff of good Breton lineage?

It’s money. It’s individualism rampant. It’s social and urban segregation. It’s post 9/11 religious poison. It’s the distance between the tenacious French imaginary of the secular state integrating every immigrant and the facts of increasingly divided identity.

Removing Muslim veils won’t make France whole. Understanding what lies behind them might.

The reality is complex. Take left-back Éric Abidal, parents from Martinique, who converted to Islam on meeting his wife of Algerian descent and once said of his decision not to sing the French national anthem: “I took the time to read the words in detail and I don’t feel represented by this hymn.” He was pleased to be French, but not the France of “To arms, citizens!”

Abidal is not alone in being a Muslim convert. Nicolas Anelka, sent home after insulting Domenech, also adopted Islam, as did Franck Ribéry on meeting his wife Wahiba (of North African descent). Romance in the projects happens with those who are there. France has become a land of Fatima Duponts without acknowledging it.

When self-image and reality part company, when the differing worlds of a nation are strangers to each other, an explosion is always possible.

Unlike a dozen years ago, talent is spotted by age 15 in the projects, players are packed into soccer academies where they learn nothing else, shipped overseas and paid vast sums. This process is disorienting. It’s not a natural generator of national pride. And of course the French talent for grumbling peaks when pensions are being cut, Ribéry is on $500,000 a month, and Sarkozy is seen as the money-money president.

Enter the Yanks (“We are the Yanks,” says a prominent banner here), with their relative naïveté, their relatively low salaries, their bubbling team spirit, their Haitian-Mexican-Nigerian talent blend, their likeable coach Bob Bradley (with his talented midfielder son, Michael), and you have a study in contrasts.

For once, America, now qualified for the knock-out stage, gets to play an international role where nobody accuses it of arrogance and the country’s honest can-do qualities — no American player would fake injury any more than a Midwesterner would grumble — are on show.

The cloud of race endures in the United States, but you can’t watch Jozy Altidore (Haitian descent), Oguchi Onyewu (Nigerian), Herculez Gomez (Mexican) and not conclude that something is working in America that’s dysfunctional in France. I know where I’d rather be an immigrant.

“Those responsible for this disaster must assume all the consequences,” the French sports minister, Roselyne Bachelot, said. I hope Sarkozy will single out Domenech for unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, not wanting to look as rich as a French footballer, the president has cancelled the traditional Bastille Day garden party at the Elysée palace. It cost over $900,000 last year. Looks like a false economy to me. France should at least go down in style.

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