Donetsk, Ukraine. The consternation sparked by Samir Nasri’s goal celebration against England proves that France are a team who remain acutely sensitive about the image they display to the wider world.
There was much to admire in France’s display in their Euro 2012 opener in Donetsk on Monday evening, not least their quick reaction to falling behind and the way they obliged England to defend valiantly in the closing stages.
Afterwards, however, the press box was abuzz with speculation over the identity of Nasri’s intended target when he put his fingers to his lips and launched the phrase ‘Shut your face!’ in the direction of the touchline.
Nasri said his reaction to his 39th-minute equalizer was born of “frustration” at the criticism to which he has been subjected in the French press, but the subsequent clamor bore unwelcome echoes of the last World Cup.
No team have made themselves quite as conspicuous by their off-pitch behavior as France did in South Africa, when their training ground strike invited ridicule upon the whole nation.
Laurent Blanc has taken great pains to improve the team’s image since becoming coach in the aftermath of the Knysna debacle — encouraging his players to sign autographs for fans and facilitating more open exchanges with the media.
It was therefore no surprise that, when it was put to him in Tuesday’s press briefing that Nasri’s actions could undo the squad’s public relations progress, he sought to nip the idea in the bud as swiftly as possible.
“I’m here to talk about Ukraine and Sweden (France’s next opponents),” he responded, his annoyance plain.
“You can talk about the rest with the person concerned. I’ve said what I had to say, full stop.”
Nasri did not help himself by rudely informing a waiting journalist that he had “not asked anyone to wait” during the two hours it took him to undergo a post-game drugs test, but French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet was quick to plead for clemency.
“We’ll try to close this affair as quickly as possible,” he told AFP.
“Everyone’s allowed to lose their rag. I’m not even thinking about it — it’s completely over. Their conduct has been exemplary for a good while now.”
Mindful of the depths to which France sank in 2010, Le Graet has allowed himself to be guided by caution in recent months, notably by refusing to grant Blanc a contract extension unless he leads France into the quarter-finals.
There was caution, too, in the players’ assessments of their performance against England.
Disappointment was a recurring theme, but there was also pride at the way they took control of the game after falling behind to Joleon Lescott’s 30th-minute header.
Blanc spoke of “mixed feelings,” but Florent Malouda took encouragement from the fact that France can now fall back on the patient passing approach honed during the warm-up victories against Iceland, Serbia and Estonia.
“On a mental level, we weren’t unsettled because the foundation of our play allows us to resume control at any moment,” he explained.
That control shone out from the statistics — France saw 60 percent of the possession (63 percent in the second half), had 19 attempts at goal to England’s three, and won 11 corners to their opponents’ four.
And yet the statistics did not tell the whole story.
Only twice was England goalkeeper Joe Hart tested by attempts from inside his area and according to the website www.whoscored.com, France created only one ‘clear-cut’ chance in the entire game.
Although France’s unbeaten run now stands at 22 games, Monday’s match represented the crossing of a new threshold and the reaction within the France camp spoke of a team still seeking assurances about their true potential.
Both on and off the pitch, Les Bleus continue to tread carefully.