France was an accident waiting to happen
No other squad went into the tournament in such low spirits, no one boasted a manager that enjoyed the confidence of his players and the wider public less. To say that Raymond Domenech, the eccentric, astrology-following coach lost the dressing room would be plain wrong: he was never fully in charge of it in the first place.
Not qualifying from a strong group in the 2008 Euros was just about excusable, not being able to score a single goal against Mexico and Uruguay isn't. France did play with some purpose for the first 15 minutes in Polokwane on Thursday night but never showed more than glimpses of cohesion and coordinated attacking moves. Domenech's big idea of the night - playing Franck Ribery in a playmaker role behind the sole striker Nicolas Anelka - managed to marginalize the Bayern Munich winger even more than in the opening game against Uruguay.
Whatever Domenech said at half time, it didn't work. In fact, it was noticeable from the slow and ponderous re-emergence of the French players before the restart that they had lost faith. Even for international footballers playing in a major competition, few things are more depressing than having a manager who's not up to the job or who can't at least project the image of competence. The Germany players who crashed out of Euro 2000 in embarrassing fashion but then
went on to the World Cup final two years later under Rudi Völler would tell of a feeling of despondency engulfing the squad because of Erich Ribbeck's ineptitude. Think of working in a job with a terrible, clueless boss. It's easy to lose motivation.
Hoping for a miracle
France still have a theoretical chance to get to the last 16, but they need a miracle. Uruguay and Mexico mustn't draw their last game and France must beat South Africa by four goals. File under "not going to happen".
"We have nine toes on the plane home already," wrote France Football.
The French Football Federation must shoulder most of the blame for the disaster: their controversial decision to stick with Domenech after the Euros was an own-goal of spectacular proportions. The best thing you could say about a man who managed to alienate almost every single player is this: it takes an absolute genius to make so many talented individuals play so badly together.
"I have no words", he said after the final whistle, "it's more than disappointing. I'm depressed." He did not know what he would tell his players, he added. No changes there, then.
"We have to reclaim our honour, it's a disgrace to lose in this way," said Florent Malouda (Chelsea) one of the better players on the night. "Whatever happens, we can't go out of the tournament without winning a single game".
Scoring a goal would be a start, of course.
Domenech made two substitution against Mexico: André Pierre Gignac of Toulouse came on for Anelka after the break, and striker Mathieu Valbuena (Marseille) replaced the ineffectual Sidney Govou. Both showed their relative inexperience at this level, shooting from impossible angles and running a lot without actually going anywhere relevant.
At the other end of the pitch, Javier Aguirre's substitutes, Manchester United-bound youngster Javier Hernandez and veteran striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco both scored.
Thierry Henry, meanwhile, the man who - single-handedly - got France to the World Cup in the first place, was inexplicably left on the sidelines. Real Madrid's Karim Benzema would have made for another great substitute.
But then of course Domenech, in his wisdom, hadn't included him in the squad. Watching France at this World Cup was like watching a slow-motion car-crash. And the inevitability of the outcome made it even more painful.
About the Author
Raphael Honigstein is a London-based soccer correspondent for Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's biggest broadsheet newspaper. He covers German soccer for The Guardian and Talksport Radio, is the author of "Englischer Fussball. A German's view of our Beautiful Game," and writes a regular blog on www.footbo.com.