A hugely talented team on paper, a disjointed mess on the pitch and a mass of squabbles and animosity off it: France are in danger of imploding at the World Cup if they can't find a way to all pull in the same direction.
The French are praying Ribery and Les Bleus get it together
Uruguay's 3-0 defeat of host nation South Africa didn't just silence the African continent on Wednesday night, it probably prompted a worrying hush to settle over France too. The Uruguayan victory not only moved the South Americans into pole position in Group A, it heaped extra pressure on Raymond Domenech's dispirited team ahead of their clash with Mexico on Thursday night.
France and Uruguay slugged out a hugely disappointing 0-0 draw in Les Bleus opening game at the 2010 World Cup, a result which exposed a lack of belief, creativity and motivation that seems to be eating away at what should be a competent - if not exciting - France squad. The fact that Uruguay responded to such a dire performance by thrashing South Africa will raise questions about how France will respond in their own remaining games.
With the host nation bruised if not broken by Wednesday night's result, it seems likely that the final game of Group A could become a make-or-break match for France and South Africa. Should France fail to raise their game against Mexico, then it could be a win or bust situation.
It could even be dead rubber should Les Bleus lose on Thursday. A Mexico victory would put both French and South African hopes of progress into the hands of their two Latin American group rivals - both of whom might well be happy to draw their group A finale against each other.
On paper, France should be clear of the pack by a mile. The squad list reads like a coach's Christmas wish-list with some of the best players in the world in their positions all ready to pull on the France jersey.
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Anelka was frustrated after being played as a lone striker
In Franck Ribery, Les Bleus have one of the world's most coveted midfield creators. On his day, Ribery is a force of nature, turning defenders inside out and popping up with his fair share of goals. Then there's Florent Malouda, a player who has just come off his best season to date in the English Premiership and an attacking threat capable of tearing defenses apart. Similarly Nicolas Anelka has matured into a fearsome striker who can win games on his own when the mood takes him.
Conducting the French onslaught with élan from midfield should be Yoann Gourcuff, the heir to Zinedine Zidane's creative crown, alongside enforcers such as Alou Diarra and Abou Diaby.
At the back, France should be solid as a rock with such world stars as Patrice Evra, William Gallas, Eric Abidal and Bacary Sagna among those vying for places in the defensive line. With players like these, France should be immovable when faced with an attack and speedily out of the final third on the counter.
And yet, this is a France squad that, on and off the pitch, looks to be much less than the sum of its parts. The French were incoherent and inconsistent against Uruguay, displaying such a lack of ideas and craft that questions as to where a goal would come from were already arising before the first half was even over. They didn't seem to know what to do or where to do it.
The players' body language was full of frustrated expletives and their attitude towards each other and the game itself became increasingly pungent as the match wore on. The message was there for all to see: this is a group of players thrown together by fate of nationality – but nobody's team.
Blame laid at Domenech's door
The man with no plan? The coach allegedly lacks vision
Rightly or wrongly, the blame for such lack of cohesion and spirit has been laid squarely at the feet of the coach. Domenech has been accused of many things: of not having a plan, of having one but not being able to communicate it to his players, of not having a clue about anything - period.
Domenech's decision to leave stars like Karim Benzema and Sami Nasri at home and his handling of the palyers at his disposal in South Africa certainly suggests a strong headed character and his choices certainly raise questions.
The erratic coach's team selection in the match against Uruguay - and his team's poor performance - opened him up for renewed questioning. Malouda only featured as a second half substitute when his inventions and penetration could have been used to greater effect from the start, and Gourcuff had a poor game - and may not be fully match-fit, having struggled with injury toward the end of his club season at Bordeaux.
Indications are that Domenech will drop Gourcuff in favor of Malouda against Mexico, and move Ribery into the middle. It's a good thing he appears to have a plan B, but perhaps the coach could have sprang it in a more timely fashion - rather than subject his countrymen to an abject performance on the World Cup's opening day.
Bust-ups and back-biting turn French camp into soap opera
The disjointed play on the pitch reflects the discontent off it
What is not fully known is the source of the deeper discord which is tearing at the unity of the squad. There have been rumors of arguments and bust-ups, denials over reported shouting matches between Domenech and a number of players, and alleged votes of no confidence in the coach by specially-convened conferences of senior stars.
Domenech is certainly a divisive character but whether he is actually wholly responsible for the fetid animosity reportedly at the heart of the French discontent is a matter of opinion and conjecture.
What needs to happen - and happen fast - is for the French players to come together. Even if they can't unify behind their coach, they should find a way to sort things out among themselves. If they don't, they could be back sunning themselves on the Côte d'Azur before the beginning of July.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann