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Domenech’s return to football as Nantes coach revives ghosts of France’s 2010 World Cup disaster

It is not the Christmas present Nantes fans were hoping for, and the reaction to the announcement of Raymond Domenech’s appointment as the club’s new manager has been brutal and even violent at times. His contract is only through the end of the 2020-21 season as Nantes need to stabilize — they’re only three points above the relegation zone in Ligue 1 ahead of the Breton Derby vs. Rennes on Jan. 6 — but the hostility has been notable since his appointment on Dec. 26.

It’s been 27 years since Domenech’s last game as a club manager, when he was in charge of Lyon against Zinedine Zidane (the player) and Bordeaux, and more than 10 years after his last game as national team head coach with France against South Africa at the 2010 World Cup. That tournament remains indelible in the minds of French football fans both for the on-field mediocrity and off-field drama. After their final game that summer, a 2-1 group stage defeat against the tournament hosts, Domenech refused to shake hands with their coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, because six months earlier, the Brazilian had said les Bleus should not have qualified for the competition because Thierry Henry “cheated” with his handball against Ireland.

That’s Domenech in a nutshell: often resentful and bitter, he never forgets anything. He reads everything written about him; he also watches and listens to everything said about him. He’s highly intelligent, a great talker, charming when he wants to be and loves an argument. He’s also the most divisive coach in French football’s history after his tenure as France head coach between 2004 and 2010.

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That six-year saga with the French national team is unrivaled when it comes to Domenech’s career in the sport. He started his tenure so badly, despite having players like Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira and David Trezeguet in his squad, that France were at risk of missing the 2006 World Cup. It was a time when Domenech would, for example, explain that he couldn’t play two defenders who had Leo star signs in the same team. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that Domenech, a believer in astrology, used it to pick his teams.

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To save the nation from embarrassment, Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram came out of international retirement and took the team to Germany 2006. Once there, Zidane took charge of the squad and even stopped talking to Domenech, but les Bleus famously lost the final against Italy on penalties and Zidane was sent off for head-butting Marco Materrazzi. Domenech never accepted that people didn’t give him credit for the team reaching the final.

In the end, the post-Zidane era would prove to be even tougher for Domenech and France. After a pathetic elimination in the group stage of Euro 2008, in which Domenech never managed to deal with the tensions between his squad’s younger stars (Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema) and older players (Thuram, Willy Sagnol, Makelele), he thought it was a good idea in the last game’s post-match interview live on French TV to ask his girlfriend to marry him instead of taking any responsibility for the fiasco or offering any explanation for it. (Later, he claimed “it was an error in communication. I felt a moment of humanity when I should have stayed cold and professional.”)

The 2010 World Cup cycle was the obvious nadir. There was the game against Ireland in which Henry’s handball put France into the tournament, the fall-out with Henry and Anelka and the players’ strike at the tournament, all of which swirled around Les Bleus’ group-stage exit, with one draw against Uruguay and defeats to Mexico and South Africa.

Domenech’s contract with the French national team expired after that tournament and since then, he has focused on theatre and acting, serving as an occasional pundit on his wife’s TV show and being the head of the managers’ union. Though he was never far from controversy. He complained when Nantes chose to appoint Claudio Ranieri back in the summer of 2017, delaying his appointment given that he felt the Italian was too old to coach in Ligue 1. Indeed, Ranieri was 65 at the time when the age limit for coaching was 65 in France. The former Leicester boss got a derogation and everyone was fine with it, apart from Domenech.

The whole argument prompted Ranieri to respond in a press conference: “Domenech? If he wants to talk to me about theatre, then maybe I would listen. But if he wants to talk to me about football, then I will never ever listen to him.” The video clip went viral on social media once it was reposted a few days ago before Domenech’s appointment; oh, and Domenech turns 69 at the end of January.

To say that his return to club management is a surprise is a massive understatement. No-one saw this one coming and no-one wanted to believe it. Yet Waldemar Kita, the controversial Nantes owner, made it happen.

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Why Domenech? It has little to do with his managerial abilities given his extended absence from the job. The more likely answer is connected to his personality, and Kita loves characters. It’s also a big publicity coup for the club. Kita, who made his fortune in cosmetic surgery, knows too well that there is no such thing as bad publicity even as Nantes’ die-hard fans openly root for him to sell the club. (Fan protests over Kita’s ownership earlier in December even required riot police and tear gas to disperse supporters.) If you’re talking about his club and about him, he is happy.

Domenech also knew that his appointment would trigger a lot of anger, but he loves the attention as well as the challenge. His remarks about the new job were diplomatic and spoke to his love of a difficult situation: “I’m looking forward to working with the staff and doing everything possible to ensure that the club regain its rightful status.” He loves when there is adversity. (In that respect, he and Kita are actually very similar.)

Will they be a match made in heaven? Only time will tell. Nantes are currently in 16th place in Ligue 1, three points ahead of the relegation zone. They have not won in eight games (four draws and four losses) and there’s so much work to be done to steady the ship, let alone trying to make this season a positive one. His first training session on Wednesday was wrecked by fans blaring “Welcome to the circus!” via a loud-speaker as the players went through their routines, an ominous sign of things to come.

As a player in the 1970s and 80s, Domenech built a reputation for being one of the nastiest defenders in the league. If he can pass on some of this attitude, this Nantes team could improve. Nevertheless, his appointment has brought back old memories, some of the worst in French football history, and has showed again that when it comes to Domenech, controversy is never far away.

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