Vincent Lazare: The World Cup Diaries

August 23, 2012

introduced by Arthur Ben Arfa (Director of Football, Cornell)

At the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, France recorded their worst performance at a major finals, departing at the group stage with only one point, having failed to score a single goal. That year’s national side, however – known colloquially as les philosophes (‘football team’) – while disappointing on the field, won many admirers, both within France and in the Anglo-American academy, for their commitment to head coach Roger Lemerre’s postmodernist praxis.

Originally faithful to the management style of Aime Jacquet (who had won the 1998 World Cup in Paris), Lemerre had led France to victory at the UEFA Championships in 2000. Two years later however, Lemerre had radically rejected the notion of “winning” as the object of footballing exploration. Rejecting the totalising philosophy of the Dutch, les philosophes offered a deconstructive approach to the game. Here the influence was the manager’s, and while it will be old ground for those well versed in the ‘New Football’, a little detail will be required for the uninitiated.

Lemerre had come to consider that when encountering what he called a “classical footballing opposition”, one never encounters “peaceful coexistence” of the two opposing teams, but rather a “violent hierarchy”, where “one of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand.”[1] In order to begin the deconstruction, one must break the link between the two opposing concepts. “To deconstruct the opposition, first of all,” he maintained, “is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.” Second, that the teams should not be “synthesised in opposition,” but that their dissimilitude, interplay and star strikers be continually marked.[2]

After what had become a humiliating success in 2000, Lemerre’s later sides were ever-vigilant in working to ensure that all teams within (and on) the field remained separate and non-hierarchical, and it was only the stubborn intransigence of Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark on these matters in 2002 that led to France’s early exit.

Now, ten years later, we have been offered a unique personal insight into one of the most exciting schools of footballing thought of the early twenty-first century. Following the career-ending injury to winger Vincent Lazare last year (his death), his estate has made public the player’s own private diaries and correspondence spanning the period of his involvement with the national team, beginning and ending with the 2002 World Cup.

Selected by Lemerre less for his on-the-ball skills than for his perplexing, and often bizarre, sociological and linguistic insights, the Le Havre playmaker,[3] was, as these extracts demonstrate, central in 2002, both to the overall Lemerrian project and to team morale within the French camp. The Lazare diaries offer an informative and at times extremely intimate look at this remarkable period in footballing history, allowing us to explore new perspectives, both on the most intellectually promising, politically exciting, and competitively unsuccessful French team of the post-war era, and on the human relationships – and tensions – within its ranks.[4]

***

31 May 2002, France 0 – 1 Senegal

These are exciting times, and the atmosphere is thick with a sense of patriotic expectation that the manager and I have been doing our best to disperse, though air fresheners here are few. The newspapers at home predict another French “victory”, and even seem to desire such an outcome. How easily our compatriots fall back into their same old reactionary narratives…

Trailing at half-time, I find myself drawn into discussion with Dugarry, and am forced to remind him that it is not the Senegalese team in itself, but the operation of football more generally against which resistance must be directed. His pretended ignorance as to who I am betrays a recognition of his naive rationalism’s inherent limitations.

The final result, however, is encouraging, and Lemerre, though inscrutable as always, seems pleased not only with the nature of the defeat, but with the nature of defeat in general. I watch, cautiously contented, from the bench.

 

6 June 2002, France 0 – 0 Uruguay

Tensions are beginning to emerge now within the dressing room, yet Lemerre’s unwavering confidence in our project is a source of continuing inspiration.

Trezeguet persists in his refusal to refuse to take penalties, insisting that the spot-kick exists merely to obscure the fact that all football is punitive. He worries about a potential second-round clash with Paraguay, but I assure him it will not come to this.

On the other side of the dressing-room, Petit continues to frustrate many of his own teammates with his tired Hegelianism. He prattles obscurely on about the “unity of football,” and the possibility of “winning,” and against the Uruguayans is only denied by a combination of post and keeper. I keep the irony to myself, although the poignancy, I feel, does not escape Henry, whose sending-off early in the first half remains the most provocative statement of the tournament so far. What Lineker will make of it we await anxiously.

Much to the chagrin of the coach and myself, Wiltord continues to hold (with not a little support) that the number of goals scored in relation to the opposing team can be a true index of footballing achievement (and that a higher number on one’s own side is preferable!). Truly he is the defensive wall at the eighteen-yard line of the bourgeoisie. I remain, in more ways than one, an unused substitute.

 

11 June 2002, Denmark 2 – 0 France[5]

Once the most celebrated of footballers, Frank Lebœuf had, until quite recently, almost faded from view. He was already being attacked for his “blindness” about Soviet offside traps shortly after joining Laval in the 1980s, and even his remarkable distribution from the back was once ridiculed for its optimism, voluntarism and sheer energetic reach. Lebœuf’s whole career was offensive to the so-called Fédération Internationale de Football Association (whose mediocre attainments had only a fervid opposition to goal-line technology to attract any attention), and to the “post-structuralists” and “crossbar-modernists” who, with few exceptions, had lapsed into a morose formalism deeply at odds with Lebœuf’s populism and barnstorming ventures out of defence.

Yet into the nineties, Lebœuf’s brand of humanist Existentialism seemed to repel more people than it attracted. (Who can forget the cruel rejoinder of the then AS Monaco coach, Jean Tigana, ‘Je veux un footballeur, pas une Existentialiste humaniste’?) The courageous positions Lebœuf had taken against the United States and Israel (left-back and holding midfielder, respectively) were forgotten. So were his work on behalf of the oppressed, his gutsy appearance as a Maoist radical during the 1968 European Championships,[6] and not least his cultured central-defensive play and set-piece creativity. He had become a maligned ex-celebrity, except in the Anglo-American world, where he had never been taken seriously as a footballer, and was always seen during his time at Chelsea, somewhat condescendingly, as a quaint occasional centre-back, insufficiently anti-Communist, not quite as chic and compelling as (the far less talented) Desailly.

It is only in more recent years that Lebœuf has (superficially at least) begun to be accorded the status he deserves, and today’s match should forever stand as a monument to his radical footballing outlook. His resistance to authority has never been more mischievously overt. His refusal to mark Tomasson for the Danes’ second goal, for example, entailing an elaborate subversion of the notion of the panoptical back four, the defensive gaze directed anywhere but at the “offensive” player. In this respect, also, I am inclined to expect more great things of our goalkeeper.[7]

The tournament (in the ontological sense), for us, is over, yet Lebœuf gives us faith that the struggle will continue. But it is upon younger heads – the Cissés and Christanvals of this world – upon whom responsibilities must now weigh most heavily. We return to Paris tomorrow where further work awaits us all. The rest of the team left the hotel this evening with the assurance that they would “meet me at the airport,” their raucous laughter expressing a sense – if not of a job well done – at least of a project gratefully embarked upon.

A glance over the evening edition of L’Équipe verifies that not everyone in France will share our vision, and there is much talk, indeed, of “failure.” Sometimes, I will admit, when I am faced with the sum of our “experiences”, represented, albeit unrealistically, in the quasi-scientific and hierarchical structure of the tableau de la ligue [Fig. 1], it is hard not to feel that, had we scored more goals, we might have accrued more points, but I am comforted by the fact that it is irrelevant.[8]

Fig. 1

Team Pld W
D
L
GF GA GD Pts
Denmark 3 2 1 0 5 2 +3 7
Senegal 3 1 2 0 5 4 +1 5
Uruguay 3 0 2 1 4 5 -1 2
France 3 0 1 2 0 3 -3 1

[1] Lemerre, Positions, p. 11

[2] Lemerre, Of Soccerology, p. 442

[3] We speak of ‘play’ here in the Derridean sense. Lazare was never selected to play professional football.

[4] For a critical analysis of France’s 2002 campaign see Lebovits, Goal Différance: Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Footballing Sciences (2003), ch. 3, ‘A critical analysis of France’s 2002 campaign’

[5] Here Lazare, as France’s tournament draws to a close, reflects on the public career of the most senior member of the squad, his former mentor and friend, Frank Lebœuf. This was to be Lebœuf’s last World Cup with France.

[6] While Lebœuf did make a stand at the UEFA Euro 1968 tournament in Italy, France having failed to qualify, this was reacted to by many with confusion, and caused some resentment in Paris. Moreover, some have argued (Chiles, Tyldesley et al.,1997) that public perceptions of Lebœuf at the time as a ‘small child’ to a large extent obscured his radical Maoist message.

[7] See Barthez, Mythologiez (2006)

[8] Vincent Lazare: The World Cup Diaries, Vol. 1, May-June 2002 (ed. Ben Arfa, 2012) is published by Djemba & Djemba (£29.99, 606pp.)

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