Trust France to be world champions and have a team that will be considered favourites once again in Qatar this summer, only to see preparations overshadowed by talk of witch-doctors, image rights, an alleged extortion plot and more than a dozen star players out injured.
‘Clouds are gathering’ over the squad, came the verdict from daily newspaper L’Equipe on Tuesday and while the storm is yet to rip through Didier Deschamps’ group, chaos doesn’t feel too far away in Clairefontaine.
Le Scandale – scandal in French – on the eve of a World Cup evokes the unedifying memories of 2010 when the squad, then managed by Raymond Domenech, revolted at the tournament.
Having lost their first two group games, Domenech had a blazing half-time row with Nicholas Anelka before sending him home from the tournament. The following day the rest of the squad boycotted training in protest. France’s tournament ended in the most explosive fashion.
Deschamps will not need reminding of how sour things developed at the end of Domenech’s reign.
It is never too far from the tip of the tongue when it comes to French national teams and sport. The rugby team only just seems to have shaken off their habit of being sucked into drama.
But heading into Nations League matches this week with Austria and Denmark, Deschamps’ brow is more than furrowed.
Paul Pogba is out injured and is still reeling from, as he detailed to police in a statement, being held at gunpoint in an alleged extortion, 12 senior players have been ruled out through injury and star man Kylian Mbappe is at war with the French Football Federation over players’ image rights.
With the World Cup in Qatar less than nine weeks away, shades of 2010 are beginning to haunt the halls of France’s Clairefontaine base.
Let’s start with Paul Pogba and the story of a witchdoctor, alleged extortion and masked men holding him at gunpoint.
The barely believable story came to light last month when his brother Mathias threatened to share ‘explosive’ revelations about the former Manchester United star to the public. It arrived as a distraction Deschamps didn’t need.
The Juventus midfielder responded by claiming that he was unsurprised by Mathias’ threat, as he revealed he had been held hostage by men with assault rifles as part of a long-running blackmail plot that involved his brother.
The incident, which Pogba relived to police, and were published by French publication Le Monde, is believed to have taken place on March 19 in the suburbs of Paris, and it has been reported that Pogba paid £85,000 to the extortionists, despite them demanding £11million from him.
Pogba’s brother, Mathias, has subsequently been charged for his alleged involvement in the extortion plot, and is currently being held in police custody. Four other men, who are alleged to be his accomplices, have also been placed under formal investigation for extortion and criminal association.
‘I was scared,’ Pogba is reported as telling police. ‘The two guys pointed their weapons at me. So, having been held up like that, under threat, I told them that I was going to pay.’
But there are so many layers to this family feud that is has run far deeper and worryingly has seeped into the rest of the group.
Mathias Pogba, who has denied accusations made by his brother, labelled him ‘a coward, traitor and hypocrite’, before claiming Pogba had met with a witch doctor to cast a spell on his international team-mate Mbappe.
Pogba strenuously refuted this claim, and Mbappe has since spoken out about the accusation, insisting he is believing the word of a team-mate over a team-mate’s brother.
Nonetheless, harmonious isn’t the word being bandied around Deschamps’ world champions.
Factor in too that Pogba, a key component of Deschamps’ side that won the World Cup four years ago in Russia, is currently sidelined after having knee surgery and is at risk of missing the World Cup in November.
‘He will not come just because he is a ‘framework’,’ Deschamps warned.
‘If he has not played before and is not in top form, it is useless. He himself does not want it.’
As for Deschamps’ verdict on the whole saga?
‘Everyone is free to believe in what they want,’ he said. ‘I’m not here to judge, it can make some people feel better.’ That’s one way to wash your hands of it.￼
Only it is one thing after another for Deschamps and France.
Pogba’s case is ongoing, injuries are mounting up and all the while Mbappe is taking on historical agreements over image rights owned by the FFF.
Mbappe had reportedly refused to take part in the France national team’s photoshoot on Tuesday over a long-running dispute on image rights – incredibly embarrassing as the poster boy of the team.
The PSG striker led a boycott among the French team of certain sponsors back in March as he did not want to be associated with particular brands but for it to flare up again, on the eve of two Nations League games and just weeks out from the World Cup, is alarming.
The FFF acted quickly – they needed to to avoid a media circus greater than the one already in town – and released a statement confirming they will look into the situation surrounding players’ image rights.
Their statement read: ‘Following conclusive discussions with the French team’s executives, the president, the coach and a marketing manager, the FFF has undertaken to revise, as soon as possible, the agreement on image rights that binds it to its national team players.’
It continued: ‘The FFF is looking forward to working on the outlines of a new agreement that will enable it to protect its interests while taking into consideration the legitimate concerns and convictions unanimously expressed by the players.’
The FFF know the court of public opinion is always going to land in the box of Mbappe and FFF president Noel Le Graet, himself attracting negative headlines in recent weeks, has tried to put out the fire.
It was agreed back in 2010 after the national team’s disastrous World Cup that image rights would be distributed equally between the 23 members of each French squad.
However, Mbappe, who sees any money earned from sponsorships with France go to charity, wants to see more of the team’s revenue going to grassroots football.
Add on top of Mbappe and Pogba the unsavoury situation that is enveloping Le Graet’s presidency.
The FFF president has been accused of inappropriate behaviour towards female co-workers as well as overseeing an alleged wider culture of harassment within the organisation.
The bombshell allegations against him led to France’s sports minister, Amelie Oudea-Castera, ordering an investigation into the FFF.
The investigation – known as ‘audit and control mission’ – was announced a day after FFF confirmed their plan to file a defamation case against So Foot magazine, the original publication of the allegations of harrassment against Le Graet.￼
So Foot’s six-page investigation quoted anonymous current and former FFF employees, as well as alleged text messages from Le Graet, 80, that it has been claimed were sent to women at FFF.
It is ‘imperative that the FFF continues its activities with absolute respect for all employees, regardless of their hierarchical position,’ Oudea-Castera said.
Le Graet has not spoken publicly on the allegations but the FFF are taking the strongest possible line against So Foot magazine.
So that’s the star striker fighting the war on image rights, the FFF president facing allegations of misconduct, and the FFF deciding to file a defamation lawsuit, and one of their key midfielders embroiled in a police investigation into an alleged extortion.
Not exactly the tried and trusted recipe for success.
‘With just a few months until the World Cup, it is important to show solidarity and concentrate on the objective [of retaining the World Cup],’ goalkeeper Hugo Lloris told L’Equipe, worried that everything is unravelling before the side even touch down in Qatar.
‘We will need to rely on all of our strength, all of our energy. We need to remain focused on the pitch. Things are too scattered around at the minute. I think that the international break will do us some good.
‘Even if there isn’t any risk involved and a few important absences, it will be good to get together and be close again, especially since we left each other in June with slightly negative feelings.’
And to top off Deschamps’ woes right now, he is facing an injury crisis.
Lloris is one of 12 players that Deschamps is having to do without for this pair of Nations League games and given this is the last international window before the World Cup, the last chance to work on tactics and fine-tune plans for the tournament, France’s options have been decimated.
Karim Benzema, Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Kingsley Coman, Presnel Kimpembe, Lucas Hernandez, Lloris, Ibrahima Konaté, Adrien Rabiot, Boubacar Kamara, Théo Hernandez and Lucas Digne are all missing.
On paper, France have the best squad in world football in terms of the depth they have in every single position.
But as Domenech found in 2010, things unravel quickly and those top players that jump off the page on paper can often jump off the wagon just as swiftly when things go awry.