The astrology, the Tarot cards, the theatricals – the eccentricities and foibles of Raymond Domenech once seemed full of mischief or whimsy. Now Nicolas Anelka looks to have spoken for millions: the French just want their national team's coach to go away. But there was a time when Domenech seemed to herald mystery and, just maybe, magic. In his days as Under-21 coach – essentially his sole qualification, in 2004, to take over a squad that had won the World Cup six years earlier – Domenech took the lads to see Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Perhaps Zinedine Zidane, now entering a new, overt phase as focus of opposition to Domenech, will remember a line he heard that baffling evening: "Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more."
In 2006 Domenech failed only in the final itself. Today the fissures between manager and players have finally ruptured into chasms of histrionics. Perhaps it was inevitable, given his "lame duck" status. At 58, Domenech has promised to step down at the end of the tournament, and it is almost as if his players would sacrifice the esteem of millions to hasten that day.
A year ago, Eric Cantona described Domenech as "the worst coach in French football since Louis XVI". Aside from his lesser known career as a football manager, Louis XVI was the final, tragic scion of L'Ancien régime. And Domenech might equally watch today's game against South Africa, which France must win to have any chance of progressing, not from the bench, but from a tumbril. He would still, no doubt, gaze upon proceedings with the same superb compromise between contempt and indifference. Interviewed immediately after their European Championship exit two years ago, Domenech responded to a question about his future by proposing to his girlfriend, a young television presenter. Reproached for his self-indulgence by the press, he apologised for "not being a robot for a moment". Here is a man who does not give a damn. The more people tell him he's a jerk, the happier he seems. "Many of you think I'm a born idiot," he said recently. "But my rebellion is my engine. Sometimes I'm provocative on purpose."
He says he thrives on adversity; that he's unnerved when things are too tranquil. He seems to adore attention of any kind. In his youth – his Catalan father had fled the Spanish Civil War for Lyon – he showed equal precocity on the stage and the football pitch. As a full-back for his home-town club, he affected a floppy Charles Bronson moustache, and was known as "The Leg-Breaker". By his own account, a malicious edge enabled him to surpass his limited abilities, winning eight caps.
Switching to the tracksuit, at first with Mulhouse, he returned to Lyon and won the Second Division. In 1993 he took over the Under-21s, and so began his long struggle for a rapport with Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele. Within a month of his appointment as senior coach, all three had announced their retirement. Some of the innovations that had goaded them will sound eerily familiar to those suddenly changing their minds about Fabio Capello. Domenech prohibited mobile phones from communal areas, made the players dine together, ordered the coach driver to leave at 9am precisely – even with one player yet to emerge.
Domenech began poorly, but then the veteran triumvirate consented to return and duly qualified four years ago. Zidane, said to control the core of the team, scarcely acknowledged Domenech on their way to a final where he would suffer his own meltdown. Even then, few took Domenech seriously. It was discovered that he consulted the Zodiac in squad selection. Robert Pires was supposedly rejected owing to his mistrust of Scorpios, while William Gallas is among those challenged by perhaps his most infamous remark: "When I have a Leo in defence, I've always got my gun ready."
Not that Domenech has been alone in national ridicule during the final crisis of his tenure. After the goalless draw with Uruguay, the sports minister Roselyne Bachelot exclaimed that "we have rediscovered the incredible team spirit lost for 20 years". And Domenech has not just lost the dressing room but the entire training pitch: the players went on strike in support of Anelka, refusing to turn up to train on Sunday.
But what has really been squandered is the precious example of multi-cultural harmony from 1998. And the dissonance between director and actors has taken all passion from the play. Still a keen amateur thespian, Domenech likes the parallels between football and theatre, the tensions between script and improvisation. But today has every aspect of the final act. Perhaps Domenech will himself remember that evening of Beckett, all those years ago: "Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing."Reuse content