France searched its soul last night as its team crashed ignominiously from the World Cup after just three games, a single goal and a players' mutiny.
Was this the just defeat of an overpaid, arrogant football team or the comeuppance of a whole nation? Were there socio-political lessons, to be learned from the fact that France – runners up in 2006, world champions in 1998 – finished bottom of Group A?
"The 1998 generation gave us magnificent hope. The 2010 generation, by its performances on the field and behaviour off the field, has given us the most total possible KO – absolute nothingness," philosophised Christian Jeanpierre, the football commentator of TF1, France's most popular TV channel.
He was speaking after last night's 2-1 defeat by South Africa (ranked 84th in the world). The search for culprits started before the game was even played. And there were calls by senior politicians last night for an official parliamentary inquiry.
A right-wing philosopher Alain Finkielkraut – a man who has previously criticised the fact that the France squad is dominated by black players – has blamed the meltdown on alleged "ethnic divisions" in the squad and the fact that many of the players come from troubled racially mixed suburbs. "We can't lie to ourselves any more," he said. "In (the behaviour of the France squad)...we are watching the spirit of our society being devoured by the spirit of the troubled estates."
His comments amounted to a grim reversal of the predictions that the 1998 World Cup victory would help France to unite behind its "brown, white and black" team. Other commentators dismissed Mr Finkielkrauts's comments as quasi-racist. The presumed trouble-makers in the France squad were not all black, they pointed out. The younger players who apologised unofficially after the training "strike" on Sunday were not all white. Besides, many of the players in the 1998 team – Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira – were also from sink estates.
Vikash Dhorasoo, a member of the 1998 squad turned writer and blogger, said the real problem was the division between the players and the elite, entirely white officialdom of the French Football Federation. "French football is ghettoised, just as divided as the rest of society," he said. "The poor suburban kids are on the field. The elite civil servants and business bosses run the game."
French football fans, and the public generally, have watched in a mixture of astonishment and grim I-told-you-so satisfaction as their squad disintegrated. The Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home on Saturday for insulting the coach, Raymond Domenech, and refusing to apologise. In protest, the rest of the team refused to train on Sunday. On Monday, the sports minister, Roseline Bachelot, told them their behaviour was "a moral disaster".