We’ve all been there haven’t we? You’ve got work or college the next day but you and a couple of friends decide to throw caution to the wind, you go out to a bar or a club, get drunk and end up back home in the early hours of the morning, a little worse for wear, and probably regretting it. The worst that will happen is you’ll wake up with a hangover, have an awful day at work, feel rough for the rest of the day and a good night’s sleep and probably a greasy breakfast will have you feeling yourself again in no time.
Spare a thought for Rennes midfielder Yann M’Vila. A night out in October has left him with a hangover that is going to last the best part of two years. On Thursday the French Football Federation met in Paris to decide the fate of M’Vila and four other French Under-21 internationals following a unsanctioned night out days before the 2nd leg of the U21 European Championship qualifying play-off against Norway, a game they lost 5-3, losing the tie 5-4 on aggregate. The U21s, who topped their qualifying group before the play-offs, will not be going to Israel, which has lead to coach Erick Mombaerts losing his job, and the U21 squad being ‘replaced’ by the U20s for the friendly matches scheduled for the rest of the season.
After beating Norway 1-0 at Le Havre’s Stade Oceane in the first match, the team returned to their training base just outside the city of Le Havre to begin preparations for the second leg. Yann M’Vila had other ideas about how to spend the evening. With his teammates Chris Mavinga, Wissam Ben Yedder, Antoine Griezmann and M’Baye Niang they jumped in a taxi and decided to spend the night on the town. This is where the trouble really starts; if the taxi had simply made its way into Le Havre and dropped the players off for a night letting off some steam, maybe they wouldn’t have been punished so severely. Instead, the taxi continued through the countryside 200km south-east to the nation’s capital so the players could let off some steam with a touch of Parisian flair.
Five of the country’s great hopes for the future made a four hour round trip just for a couple of drinks – OK, the leaked pictures on Facebook made it look like more than a couple of drinks. The journey would be like England’s U21s going from Birmingham to London and back to spend the night out at Spearmint Rhino. All five players will of course look back and rue the decision that was made that night; fingers were pointed at the decision being the sole reason for the defeat to Norway, which seems a very simplistic explanation from the people in charge. The game was three days later, only M’Vila and Mavinga started the game, Griezmann would later come on and score, and there were another nine players on that pitch who did not perform – it was too easy to blame the “delinquents” for their actions.
This in no way condones the players’ actions that night; they should not in any circumstances have travelled to Paris to celebrate a job half-done – a trip to Le Havre maybe, a few drinks, break curfew and get a slap on the wrist, that would have been enough. The decision to make that journey could now ruin any international future those five could have had. Mavinga, Ben Yedder, Griezmann and M’Baye have been banned from all international football for 14 months, and M’Vila, apparently the main protagonist of the piece, has been given a 20-month ban, a ban that will see the talented midfielder miss the 2014 World Cup. OK, he could return at the Quarter-Final stage, but no coach is going to pick him for that tournament. So if Yann M’Vila ever wants to play in a World Cup, he could possibly make his debut as a 27-year old in Russia. The question is, whose decision has ruined M’Vila’s international career more, his decision to go drinking in Paris, or the FFF trying to make a point by issuing such a huge ban for something that pales into insignificance when you look at previous misdemeanours of the current French side?
Nicolas Anelka was banned for 18 games after comments directed at then coach Raymond Domenech which were deemed unacceptable. With his international career all but over anyway, he decided not to turn up for his disciplinary meeting where the suspension was meted out. The amount of games was excessive to prove a point; Anelka would never have played another 18 games for the national team no matter who was in charge, and the player himself had said he was finished with international football so the ban was indeed pointless. The day after the Anelka incident the French team famously refused to train and the stand-off in Knysna will remain one of the darkest moments in French football history. Punishments were dished out: the whole 23-man team was suspended for a friendly against Norway (them again?); leader of the pack Patrice Evra was given a five-game ban, Franck Ribery would miss three games and Jeremy Toulalan received a one-match ban. Under the stewardship of new coach Laurent Blanc everyone seemed to move on, and the future again looked bright, but in the halls of the FFF something seems to have changed, they became petrified of any player taking a single step in the wrong direction, and since the punishments dished out after Knysna the strictest of treatment has been applied.
After making less-than-gentlemanly gestures to the press after the defeat to Spain at this summer’s European Championships Samir Nasri was given a three-match ban. Jeremy Menez was given a one-match ban for his behaviour during the Spain game, and Yann M’Vila and Hatem Ben Arfa were handed warnings for their antics after it. M’Vila’s warning was for not shaking Laurent Blanc’s hand when he was substituted for Olivier Giroud; note that the exact same thing happened when Poland played Russia in their last group game, when Bordeaux midfielder Ludovic Obraniak was clearly upset to be taken off in the crucial final moments – absolutely nothing critical was said of Obraniak’s behaviour, actually comments were made that it showed the French-born Polish midfielder really cared for his team’s fate in the competition. Obraniak will be happy he picked Poland in the end. No player should be happy to be taken off the field; the reaction may show some petulance, but who doesn’t want a little bit of fire and fight to their players, especially central midfielders like M’Vila?
The FFF are hiding the real explanations for the poor performances of the French side behind these suspensions and sanctions. By punishing M’Vila and friends they are blaming them for the defeat to Norway, and the similar decisions made after elimination to Spain were an attempt to deflect blame onto individual players’ actions and away from collectively poor performances on the field, which may have another genesis. This in turn stops the players being able to express themselves and leads to a very uncomfortable relationship between the FFF and the players. Why would you want to perform for your country when any slight step out of line could affect your future in the game? In the past 20 months France have played around 25 games, so M’Vila’s suspension eclipses both Patrice Evra’s and Nicolas Anelka’s combined; it almost singlehandedly exceeds the punishment handed to the entire 2010 World Cup squad. All for the glitz and glam of a few drinks in Paris – that’s what you call an expensive night out.
Again, in no way does this condone the actions of M’Vila and the other players that night; they should not have gone to Paris. And yes, Yann M’Vila as the experienced member of the group should not have led the players on this unsanctioned trip, but the punishment does not fit the crime. Two or three games would have been more than acceptable and when you look at the recent suspensions in football handed out for arguably much worse – at least much more complex – offences, Luis Suarez and John Terry will be delighted they were not born in France.
You also wonder what sort of sanctions would have been handed out if France had been successful over the last two years – a hypothetical, but you can imagine slapped wrists, firm talkings-to, maybe bans covering one or two friendly matches rather than hitting double figures, and with a more indulgent undercurrent that well, it shows their spirit. It just isn’t clear what the FFF think they can achieve with such harsh sanctions; they seem to be instituting a Nanny State, treating adults like disobedient children. They are at a loss why the senior and youth sides have failed to perform at the highest level, and instead of looking at the style of play or the structure of the youth systems – or the management they have chosen until it is too late – they have gone straight to the role of disciplinarian, like a headmaster from the 1960s trying to beat his young charges into submission.
The worry for all French football fans is that if the FFF continues down this road, it won’t just be Yann M’Vila and his friends that suffer the effects of the world’s worst hangover.