When Karim Benzema was left out of the France squad for Euro 2016 by Didier Deschamps, following questioning by police in November over an alleged blackmail attempt against his team-mate Mathieu Valbuena, Eric Cantona suggested there was an element of discrimination against the player of Algerian origin.
Deschamps has categorically denied this and is taking legal action against his former team-mate but further concerns have been raised this week towards the French media, particularly the sports daily L’Equipe, which faced criticism on social media from France supporters who accused journalists of unfairly criticising the team and looking to create drama around particular players.
#Boycottlequipe has been trending for several days in France, since the newspaper targeted Paul Pogba, who allegedly made a gesture aimed towards the press box after he made the assist for the second goal in the match against Albania on Wednesday which France won 2-0.
After being slammed by the media following his performance in the opening match against Romania, some media outlets have suggested that Pogba wanted to send a message to the journalists watching. However, Pogba denies doing the bras d’honneur, claiming he was merely celebrating. The footage of the split-second moment was not broadcast by beIN Sports, who sent an email to journalists justifying the omission by saying that they wanted to “avoid unuseful controversy”. However, the image was later shown by the Belgian channel RTBF and published by L’Equipe.
Comparisons have been made between this case and the one that happened with Samir Nasri during France’s match against England at Euro 2012 when he celebrated his equalising goal by running past the press and telling them that they could “shut the fuck up” in French.
The tension between the media and the players in the French national team has become more pronounced in recent years and questions have been raised about whether there is an element of racial discrimination behind the scrutiny that black and Arab players have faced both from the media and with Deschamps.
Online, fans have pointed to double standards in the way that different people are treated in French media. One Twitter user said: “When @lequipe wrote headlines about Platini they presented him as a victim even while he was being sentenced. #boycottlequipe.”
Another user said that they were boycotting L’Equipe because they “lacked diversity”.
L’Equipe was further accused of trying to create drama around Les Bleus after reporting that Pogba had flouted Deschamps’s rules on punctuality and dress code by turning up to lunch several minutes late, wearing flip-flops: #claquettesgate was soon all over social media with football fans expressing exasperation at all the fuss being made over Pogba’s mealtime footwear.
One France supporter on Twitter pointed out that “Every period has its scapegoat”, and dug out a collection of previous covers of L’Equipe that targeted Nasri, Benzema, Pogba and Nicolas Anelka.
Anelka is certainly no stranger to controversy in the French media. The former France player received criticism for his relationship with the French comedian Dieudonné and was reprimanded for making the quenelle gesture on the pitch whilst playing for West Bromwich Albion in 2013. He also had disagreements with the former France manager Raymond Domenech which ultimately led to the end of his international career.
He waded into the debate surrounding Pogba by uploading a video to YouTube on Thursday, criticising the French media in general: “The French press, are you not tired of creating controversy all the time? Seriously. In 2010 it was you, in 2012 one again, and 2016 too?”
He reproached journalists for making a big deal out of Pogba wearing flip-flops to lunch and saying “we don’t give a damn about that”.
He went on to make a point to defend the French team which has been echoed by fans across social media: “France had had two matches, two victories which means six points. That’s all. That’s the important thing. ‘But yes, no, it was difficult.’ Yes, it was difficult, football is difficult. ‘But yes, no, it was lucky.’ Yes it was lucky but you have to create luck … when we love someone we hide their faults, so if you love the French team and you want them to do well, help them. For once.”
Amid all this controversy, there is a lot riding on their success. This competition has been billed as an opportunity for France to come together behind a united cause following the tragic attacks that rocked the country in November last year. That is probably part of the reason why fans are getting so frustrated at the negativity targeted at the team, which is seen by many as being unnecessary. While they maintain a strong position in the group stages, if this negativity continues it is unlikely to do any good for the team, the fans or the atmosphere surrounding the games overall.
This article was written by Iman Amrani, for theguardian.com on Sunday 19th June 2016 10.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010