France could be on course to defend their World Cup crown this year, but it hasn’t always been plane sailing for Les Bleus in recent years.

Reigning World champions after winning the 2018 World Cup in Russia and boasting one of the very best players in the world in Kylian Mbappe, France are very much a team to be feared these days.

Despite heading to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a number of players missing through injury, they remain one of the most impressive performers at the tournament and are strong contenders to defend their crown after reaching the semi-finals at the expense of England.

Yet, despite winning the World Cup for the first time in 1998 and reaching the final again in 2006, alongside a European Championships win in 2000 and final loss in 2016, it hasn’t always gone to plan for Les Bleus in recent years at major international tournaments.

They’d suffer group-stage exits at the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, as well as at Euro 2008, while they only got as far as the round-of-16 before a shock penalty shootout defeat to Switzerland in last year’s pan-continental European Championships.

But their most embarrassing moment came at the aforementioned 2010 World Cup in South Africa where, despite a squad littered with some of the best players in the world, they created headlines for all the wrong reasons. And right in the middle of it all was a controversial former Liverpool striker.

It’s fair to say Nicolas Anelka enjoyed something of a rollercoaster career, taking in the likes of Arsenal, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Man City, Chelsea and Juventus as well as a half-season loan stint at Anfield. Even though his brief spell with the Reds came 20 years ago, they still rue the fact that Gerard Houllier decided against signing his compatriot permanently and instead opted to move for El Hadji Diouf.

Anelka’s Liverpool career might have been brief but his exploits at club-level earned him a 12-year international career, with the forward scoring 14 goals from 69 caps and winning both Euro 2000 and the 2001 Confederations Cup with France.

Yet his international career would come to an end at the 2010 World Cup as he was sent home in disgrace and left France in disarray after a bitter dressing room falling out with manager Raymond Domenech, who was not particularly popular with players, pundits and supporters and was standing down after the tournament anyway. The France squad would take the striker’s side, however, as they went on strike and refused to train before suffering a group-stage exit.

Now on the books at Chelsea, Anelka had won a Premier League and FA Cup double with the Londoners in 2009/10, scoring 15 goals in all competitions following on from a 25-goal campaign the year before that saw him win the Premier League Golden Boot. Given such form at Stamford Bridge, he headed to South Africa as Domenech’s first-choice striker and had even scored a decisive goal in the World Cup play-offs against Republic of Ireland the previous November. However, that would prove to be his final international goal.

In the 2020 Netflix documentary, ‘Anelka: Misunderstood’, it was claimed that Domenech met the striker in London two months before the World Cup and promised him that he would be the team’s centre forward. But the striker would claim he felt there was something wrong in the France camp after a series of flat performances in the pre-tournament friendlies, and had to be persuaded to not withdraw from the squad.

“We played the friendlies, I didn’t touch the ball. Nothing. Zero. There were no automatic reflexes between us,” Anelka said. “’It was ugly. I knew that when we got to the World Cup in Africa, having not built up any trust or scored or done anything on the pitch… it didn’t feel right.”

Patrice Evra, France captain at that tournament, was also interviewed and commented: “He (Anelka) told me he wanted to leave. He felt something was going to go wrong.

“So, I said to him: ‘Nico, don’t be silly.’ He said: ‘Pat, I swear, something big is going to happen.’”

“In the end I was persuaded to stay,” Anelka continued. “But yeah at that moment he was right. He’s the coach. He’s the one who decides.

“He’ll die defending his ideas. He’s right. We tried opening up a dialogue with him. He chose to stick to his system. And then what happened, happened.”

Anelka started up front in their first group game against Uruguay but he was brought off after 72 minutes having failed to make an impact as France fought out a 0-0 draw with the would-be semi-finalists. But worse was to come against Mexico as a 2-0 defeat left Les Bleus on the brink of elimination.

The striker would start that game too, only to be withdrawn at half-time with the scores goalless as Domenech sent on Andre-Pierre Gignac in his place. It later emerged that Anelka had been replaced after a blazing row with his manager.

Domenech had burst into the changing room and singled the striker out for criticism after a lacklustre first half, as he claimed Anelka was playing out of position.

“I was frustrated going into the locker room,” Anelka recalled. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m not getting the ball, I’m not finding a solution. We’re playing badly, it’s 0-0 and we still haven’t scored.’

“All of a sudden, the coach came in and called me out by name. When he called out my name with all that pent-up frustration it just came out because I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that he called me out by name as if I were guilty, as if it were all my fault.

“I took it as an attack. It was a big mistake. He had to know I was frustrated. He had to know I was a volcano about to erupt.”

It was claimed by L’Equipe that Anelka told Domenech to ‘go f*** yourself you son of a w****’ during the dressing-room row. That has since been proven to be untrue with both player and manager refuting that controversial front-page headline.

“I looked at my phone and I was like ‘Hang on, what?” Anelka recalled of the controversial front page. “It’s going to say that? Are you serious or are you joking?

“It was madness. We were the victims. I was the first but the other players were taken hostage. Everyone was calling them wanting to know if it was true. It was just insane.

“The most important thing for me was the group. Evra and [Eric] Abidal called the coach who said he’d come down. We waited for him but he never showed up.

“People know me. They know if I had said what came out in the press, I’d have owned up to it. I’ve always owned up to everything.”

Meanwhile at the time, Anelka told France-Soir newspaper: “I certainly had a heated discussion with the coach but it happened in the sanctity of the dressing room, between the coach and I, in front of my teammates and the team’s staff.

“This should never have left the dressing room. I insist that the words which have come out in the press are not my words.”

Anelka would later launch a libel case against the French newspaper, claiming €150k in damages and saying that what was said in a dressing room was confidential. However, he would ultimately lose as a tribunal prosecutor deemed that although there was a debate about the exact remarks, their offensive nature was not contested.

While he has never clarified what he said to his former France manager, Domenech would recall the exchange when speaking to Canal+ in 2018 as he lifted the lid on his dressing room criticism of Anelka.

“At one point, with players in a locker room, we have explanations, that’s all,” he said. “At half-time, I tell him: ‘Nico, what I want is for you to go deep. There are ten of us on the bench, we all saw that you weren’t going there.’

“‘Yes, but it’s still me’. ‘Yes, it’s always you. It’s you who plays there,’ replied Domenech, believing that it is Anelka’s role to go there since he is a striker.

Anelka subsequently threw his shoes on the ground and blurted out: “You just have to do your s****y team!” Domenech replied: ‘Bah, you’re right, I’ll do it, you go out,’ before sending Gignac on in his place.

“For me, it’s suddenly a lack of respect for the function,” Domenech said. “I am a coach, he is a player. And someone who until now had addressed me suddenly in front of my friends is familiar with me… It’s over.

“He broke the link, the relationship between the coach and the player. So it was over, there was no debate.”

Evra would offer a similar version of events when recalling the altercation to RMC Sport earlier this year.

“Domenech waited a good ten minutes before speaking and then turned to Anelka, ‘Nico what did I tell you, stop going down to look for the ball,'” Evra confirmed. “Anelka is tying his shoelaces, not looking, then he says, ‘F**k your team. If that’s the problem, then I’m not playing.’

“Domenech didn’t even hear it, it was his assistant. I intervened saying we could still qualify, I told Nico to put his boots back on. They kicked him out like a piece of s**t.

“I wanted to convince Nico to apologise, but he wouldn’t do it in public. I said to Domenech that he was going to destroy the group. He told me that if Anelka apologised then it would be fine.

“I went to convince Nico and told the coach that he was ready to apologise. Domenech was laughing, he told me that it was too late, it was over and that the French president was upstairs. This is a political story, we can’t lie to each other.”

Anelka missed the following day’s training after the defeat to Mexico and was told to publicly apologise by French Football Federation (FFF) president Jean-Pierre Escalettes. The striker refused and was kicked out of the squad as a result.

“Words spoken by Nicolas Anelka to the national coach, Raymond Domenech, are completely unacceptable to the FFF, French football and the values they defend,” read an FFF statement confirming the striker’s expulsion.

“After being informed on Friday evening of the serious incident during half-time of the France-Mexico match, federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes asked Nicolas Anelka in the presence of captain Patrice Evra to present an official apology to the French public and to express regret for his remarks to Raymond Domenech, the staff and 23 players from the France team.

“Upon refusal by the player to deliver a public apology, he [Escalettes] made the decision – in full agreement with the coach and members of the official delegation in Knysna – to exclude Nicolas Anelka from the group. He will leave the Team France camp this evening.”

“It’s shocking, because if anyone has protected Anelka, it’s Domenech,” FFF vice President Noel Le Graet told French radio station RTL following Anelka’s expulsion. “Domenech has played Anelka throughout the past two years.

“There are of course divergences of opinion surrounding tactics and positioning, but it merits in any case friendlier conversations.”

Despite Anelka’s expulsion, Domench had been willing to allow the striker to remain with the squad if he apologised. However, both manager and playing squad were left outraged that the story had been leaked to the press.

“People cannot imagine the pressure,” Domenech said. “We are in a dressing room, the coach says something to a player who is already under pressure, he can react angrily, and with strong words.

“Anelka did not react in the most suitable fashion, but it was just a guy sitting in his corner and muttering – that would not have mattered had it stayed there. What was important was that it made the front page of a newspaper, and that exposes the internal life of the squad.

“I sorted out the problem internally, and as far as I was concerned it was done and dusted. I had another chat with him (Anelka) the next day and I left open the possibility for him to apologise, something which he did not want to do.

“The decision to exclude him was the right one. I am sorry for the children for whom the French team represents something. Anelka does not have the right to say such things.”

“The problem of France is not Anelka, but the traitor among us,” Evra would tell reporters when on media duties in South Africa. “We must eliminate the traitor from the group because he wants to hurt the team.”

Anelka would later claim to know the identity of the mole when speaking to Onze Mondial in 2017.

“I know the guilty one. I’ll reveal it,” he said. “If I had said it, I would have owned up. I would have repeated it even. I don’t need to hide. I stand by everything I say and everything I do.

“I knew the players were going to be behind me. They knew I was right, quite simply. Not regarding the insult, which is false by the way, but the act itself. I wanted to change things so that the coach understood there were things to change. But I didn’t expect L’Equipe would invent a phrase and publish it the following day.”

Regardless of the identity of the ‘traitor’, the decision to send Anelka home did not go down well with his France team-mates, and they would hold a meeting of their own as they decided how to show their support for the striker. They ultimately decided to go on strike and refused to train the next day.

“I told the boys that we were going to have a meeting to say goodbye to Nico,” Evra said. “It really hurt. We started talking amongst ourselves, we wondered what we should do. We saw Nico dressed in the street with his bag, he was treated like a piece of s**t.

“One young man in the group said, ‘We are not playing the last game’, but we couldn’t do that. Playing in a World Cup is a dream. We decided that we wouldn’t train, we didn’t need to train, but we just wanted to protest.”

Meanwhile, Anelka recalled: “That night we all met in the hotel lounge. We chatted and I told the players how sad the situation was. I said: ‘All you have to do is be focused on the pitch. There’s one game left. If we win, we qualify.’

“They said: ‘It’s not right, we want to do something for you, to take a stand,” and they all decided there that they won’t be talking to the press or turning up to training the next day.”

The initial plan was for the French team to take the bus up to the training pitches but not get off for their Sunday session. But Evra later realised it was a public session and instead opted to get off following discussions on the bus with Domenech, sign autographs for fans and get back on the bus.

Yet he’d still infamously clash with fitness coach Robert Duverne on the training pitches, who reacted by angrily throwing down his official accreditation badge, and had to be pulled away as Domenech separated them.

Of his argument with Evra, Duverne later said: “Patrice Evra came to tell me that the players were not going to participate in training. I was angry because we play a big game in two days and we have no right to destroy our last chance. We are in a difficult situation but it is not impossible.”

Meanwhile, the squad, who said they only turned out to greet fans, promptly walked off and returned to the bus. Domench would join them for showdown talks as they closed the curtains, before awkwardly re-emerging to read out their statement to the press.

“We regret the incident at half-time of the France v Mexico match, but we regret even more the divulging of an event which was only the squad’s business and was part and parcel of the life of a top-level team,” it read.

“All players without exception want to declare their opposition to FFF (French Football Federation) decision to exclude Nicolas Anelka. “For its part, the FFF has at no time tried to protect the group.

“They made a decision without consulting all the players, only on the basis of the ‘facts’ reported by the press. Accordingly, and to mark their opposition to the highest level of French football, all players decided not to participate in the work-out.”

Despite their refusal to train, the players added that they would “do everything individually and in a collective spirit so that France regains its honour against South Africa on Tuesday.”

To add to the chaos, France team director Jean-Louis Valentin publicly announced his resignation to the media in response to the scandal.

“Ask the players, they do not want to involve themselves any more. It’s unacceptable,” he told AFP. “They don’t want to train. It’s a scandal for the French, it’s a scandal for the federation and the French team.

“It is a shame. As for me, it’s over. I’m leaving the federation. I’m sickened and disgusted.”

The FFF hit back at the players in a statement that said their actions were “unacceptable”. It read: “Contrary to what the players said, this sanction [of Anelka] was taken following a long conversation with the person in the presence of the captain.

“The FFF apologise to the country for the unacceptable conduct of the players that are representing our country. A federal council shall be convened immediately on the completion of the French team’s campaign to draw all the conclusions of the crisis that has been created.”

Unsurprisingly, the French media poured scorn on the mutinous squad, saying the team had ‘Shamed us all’ and ‘Each day, the Blues set new standards of unacceptable behaviour.’

Even President Nicolas Sarkozy was asked about it, while Bernard Saules, a senior member of the FFF, hit out at the attitude of Anelka and other under-performing players.

“We are the only team at the World Cup who aren’t playing for their country’s pride. We need to push out some of these little s***s,” he said.

For the record, France would go on to lose their final group game 2-1 to hosts South Africa, ensuring they finished bottom of their group with just one point and having scored just one goal.

As it transpired, Anelka’s pre-tournament gut-feeling about something not being right with France was proven exactly right. Yet he praised the squad’s camaraderie when speaking after the tournament, insisting even if he hadn’t clashed with Domenech, it was still like a time-bomb in South Africa.

“If it hadn’t been me that brought it to a head, someone else would,” he told France-Soir. “It was waiting to happen. “Everyone, and I really mean everyone, was as one. In the case of the mutiny, everything and its opposite was said. If there were some players who wanted to train, let them speak now. But I’m 100% sure that nobody will want to.

Meanwhile, team-mate Jeremy Toulalan, who admitted he played a direct role in the squad refusing to train, conceded that the France squad should be punished.

“I’m not proud of what I did but I accept the responsibility,” he told Journal du Dimanche. “[But] there were no ringleaders and no slaves. No good guys and no bad guys. We were all involved and we are all responsible because nobody said a word [against the boycott]. Whoever says otherwise is a liar.”

The president of the French Federation resigned over what he called the “fiasco” and a government inquiry was launched into the whole affair.

Two months after the World Cup, the FFF banned Anelka for 18 international matches over his conduct in South Africa, and handed out further sanctions to three further players after new manager Laurent Blanc had already suspended all 23 members of the World Cup squad for his first game in charge against Norway. They also withheld World Cup advertising bonuses which were due to be paid to players.

An FFF statement announcing the suspensions read: “At a meeting in Paris this Tuesday, August 17, 2010, following the submission by the federal council dated August 6, 2010 relating to events occurring within the France team at the FIFA World Cup 2010, the federal commission for discipline of the FFF has taken the following decisions:

“Nicolas Anelka is sanctioned with an 18-game suspension from selection for the France team. A five-game suspension from selection for the France team has been issued to Patrice Evra.

“Franck Ribery will have to serve a three-game suspension. Jeremy Toulalan is punished with one-game suspension. The commission takes note of the explanation provided by Eric Abidal, who has not been sanctioned.”

Evra and Ribery were summoned for not performing their duties properly as captain and vice-captain, while Toulalan was seen as the perpetrator behind a statement read out by Domenech explaining why the players had refused to train.

Meanwhile, Valentin, who gave evidence at the tribunal despite his resignation following the mutiny, believed France’s squad deserved a second chance.

“I sensed that the players are truthfully sorry, and been left damaged and mortified at what took place, they were conscious of a collective meltdown,” he said. “I believe that now it is imperative we turn the page and move on.

“I believe that to a certain extent there has been a very good dialogue in there (at the commission) which lasted a relatively long time. As a lover of the French team, and as a supporter of the France team, I think that each player has the right to a second chance.”

However, there would be no second chance for Anelka. The striker didn’t even turn up to the disciplinary meeting and dismissed his 18-game ban as laughable, having decided to retire from international football anyway.

“For me, that commission thing is absolute nonsense, an aberration, a farce, an attempt not to lose face,” Anelka was quoted as saying by France Soir. “They know that very well. They didn’t punish anybody…because the Les Bleus chapter was closed for me on June 19, when I was kicked out of Knysna.

“They just entertained the public. They’d better turn the page because (new France coach) Laurent Blanc needs to work in peace. These people are clowns. It makes me die of laughter.

“For me, since the World Cup in South Africa, the France team is all in the past… I wear a blue shirt with Chelsea every weekend and that’s far enough for me.”

Meanwhile, he’d later reveal his celebration in Chelsea’s 4-1 win against MSK Zilina was aimed at the FFF. The striker scored twice during Chelsea’s Champions League victory and celebrated by simulating his hands being cuffed.

“It was just something for the French federation about what happened at the World Cup,” he said. “It was just a little joke, but I think the other French players will understand what it means. What happened in the summer is in the past now and I’m 100% focused on playing for Chelsea.”

While it is now 12 years since Anelka and Domenech’s row in South Africa, both have still taken further digs at each in the years that have passed.

“I’m out of here. I couldn’t give a damn about this bunch of imbeciles. I have no energy left. I don’t like them any more. I’ve had enough of their tantrums,” Domenech wrote of the 2010 World Cup experience in his book, aptly titled Tout Seul (All Alone).

“This team is completely incapable of transcending itself and I’m certainly to blame for something. I got it all wrong. I feel humiliated to have got it so wrong.

“[Ribery] is the same as Anelka and Henry, everything revolves around their belly buttons. When things go wrong, they’re the first to jump ship. A senior player warned me about Ribery in 2008; and me, I gave him the keys [to the team]. What a moron I am.”

Meanwhile, when talking about Kylian Mbappe in 2017, Anelka managed to squeeze in one final dig at his former manager.

“Mbappe will make his career. If, however, it resembles mine, it will mean that it is among the best attackers, with a strong character,” he told JJD. “If he follows Ronaldo, Il Fenomeno, my model in football, he will be among the legends and will have marked the history of his sport. That is what I wish him.

“He can also follow Raymond Domenech’s career, that of a small player of the French championship who has become a fifteen-year-old coach of, including the France team, without winning any trophies and then unemployed since 2010. It is for Mbappe to choose!”

Considering he is already a World Cup winner and currently leading the race for the 2022 World Golden Boot, it would seem Mbappe and France are on a very different path than the one Anelka found himself on all those years ago.

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