Matthew Norman: Let's leave rebellions to the French

Where the England team’s range tends to stretch from the inexplicably abysmal to the stolidly competent, Les Bleus are either atrocious or wonderful
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The Independent Online

Not since 2003, when Mr Tony Blair left the meeting at which Jacques Chirac told him that under no circumstances would he be joining us in Iraq and sagely observed "He just doesn't get it, does he?" have the British made such a grotesque misjudgement about the French.

Lately it's been impossible to answer the phone or read a paper without meeting the cliché: "Thank God the French are there to make us look less appalling!" I've parroted it myself a dozen times, in classical Blairite fashion always sincerely believing it at the moment of utterance.

But it couldn't be less true. Quite the reverse, the magnificent militancy of Les Imposteurs, as Les Bleus became known after Thierry Henry's handball robbed the Irish of their World Cup berth, renders our lot more risible than before. And that, you may agree, is a more remarkable sporting feat than BBC pundit Mick McCarthy – himself victim of a World Cup insurrection at the potty mouth of Roy Keane – making Alan Shearer sound like the lovechild of Noam Chomsky and Isaiah Berlin.

For this John Terry takes most, though by no means all, of the laurels. In his truncated bid to compensate for the ego-shrinking loss of captaincy with the abortive bid to usurp Il Duce, Terry did something regarded as technically impossible by northern club comics of the old school. He lost a fight with an Italian. Who now will have a Blackpool pier audience yelping for the side-stapler by revealing that the new Italian flag is a white cross on a white background?

Yet this was more than a mere defeat. Terry was crushed with all the imperious scorn his faux rebellion deserved. He wasn't, it soon turned out, Fletcher Christian. He wasn't even Terry Christian. He was one of those Christians whom Fabio Capello's distant ancestors used as makeshift Whiskas in the Coliseum. Don Fabio gobbled him up in a bite, and couldn't be bothered to dignify his snack with a roar of satisfaction. A suitably Corleone-esque murmur – "A big mistake... a very big mistake" – represented the licking of his chops.

The disdain for the England squad is only deepened, meanwhile, by the belief that a fair number of his compadres, particularly the London-based players formally known as the Southern Secessionists, share his feelings about Capello. Yet invited to join Terry's neo-Gaullist government in exile, they scared themselves into sticking with Vichy instead.

They lacked the guts to join the uprising even for the few hours of its life, and when they jog out for this afternoon's relaxing encounter with Slovenia, speech bubbles reading "I'm not Spartacus" will be visible. But then as someone clever wrote yesterday, if you can trust England to master anything, it's abundant cluelessness in attack.

As so often, it has fallen to the French to throw English pliancy and fecklessness into sharpest relief. Admittedly, this is not the majority opinion in France, where public, press and President are livid about the withdrawal of training ground labour (our lot limiting the industrial action thus far to a form of work to rule on the pitch ) in protest at Nicolas Anelka's ostracism for a Keynesian rant at Raymond Domenech, their Eeyore-ish coach. The French Sports Minister (and we thought delivering the most savage Budget in 30 years was a tough political challenge) isn't thrilled either, ordered to stay in South Africa by Sarkozy to read the riot act. Indeed, Roselyne Bachelot didn't restricted herself to private strictures of the sort that would, if required for our squad, oblige coalition sports supremo Big Jeremy Hunt to preface his rebuke with: "Look, lads, I have to give you a bollocking, but you're all gonna have to grow a pair first".

Hunty, recalling the stick Mr Tony took for criticising Glenn Hoddle's intriguing take on reincarnation, wouldn't have had the requisite gonads himself to make his outrage public, as Bachelot did by dwelling on the betrayal of French children denied any football heroes to worship. Our version would have been civilised, private and repressed. Ineffably English.

Meanwhile, Zinedine Zidane lobbed in his two penn'orth. Building on a reputation for raising the team ethic far above personal feeling, as forged with the headbutt to Marco Materazzi's chest that earned him first bash at the soap (no cheap Gallic hygiene gags, please, about that being punishment enough) and cost the French the 2006 World Cup final, he declared himself "sad... very, very sad."

Zizou should be no such thing. He should be heureux – très, très heureux – that the French gift for defiance in the face of authority remains, to the delight of a watching, giggling world, undimmed. You can imagine the lorry blockades stretching from Calais to Cannes, for example, if a French finance minister so much as hinted at a Budget of the sort delivered here yesterday.

Equally enviable is the quixoticness. Where our World Cup range tends to stretch from the inexplicably abysmal to the stolidly competent, the French are atrocious or wonderful but never caught in the Sahara of so-whattishness in between. They win the 1998 World Cup and crash out without a point or goal four years later. They reach the last final with a majestic dismissal of Brazil, and this time imbue the Brentford reserves with the lustre of Pele's Brazilians.

Don't you adore them for that loathing of mediocrity as much as for their arrogant contempt for the trite clichés about loyalty to the flag and sacrificing individual expression to the team ethic? They just don't give a toss, these swordless musketeers, and they don't care who knows it. Their sullen faces yesterday confirmed this before the inevitably fiascoid defeat to South Africa, when they produced the most tear-jerking rendition of La Marseillaise since Victor Laszlo conducted the non-Nazi patrons of Rick's Bar to wind up the Gestapo. Never have liberté, egalité and fraternité been so elegantly translated into "Yeah, yeah, yeah, enough of this play-acting, let's get this over with and be in the first plane home".

Theirs, then, was a mutiny to relish. And ours? To the Wat Tyler manqué John Terry, rebellion was no more than a game of Knock Down Ginger... and he was the best of them. At least he had the nerve to ring Capello's doorbell, which is more than can be said for the rest, before scurrying into the bushes at the first click of Italian heels from within like the naughty little boy he is.