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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Computer Futures

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree - £18k Starting Salary

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Reeva Steenkamp is  

Since Reeva Steenkamp's death, 243 women have been killed by male violence in the UK alone

Sian Norris
Actor Brad Pitt  

The over-50s have the real voting and spending power — so why are we so obsessed with youth?

Stefano Hatfield
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London