French Football has taken a hammering in the last few months. Thierry Henry embarrassed a nation with his “Hand of Frog” antics in the World Cup play-off versus Ireland and the national team behaved like spoilt brats in South Africa culminating in a players strike, insipid displays and early elimination at the group stage. No sooner has the dust settled (and a Presidential inquest) and another scandal has dragged the nation further into the mire.
This time Frank Ribery (Bayern Munich) and Karim Benzama (Real Madrid) have been questioned and subsequently charged with having sex with an under-age prostitute. The charges could not be more serious and a possible jail sentence of 3 years hangs over the players heads. Ribery, who is married with children has admitted having sex with the woman but claims he did not know she was under-age at the time of their rendezvous. However if it is proved that he bought a plane ticket to Germany for the call girl (and hence was aware of her age) his protestations of innocence will fall on deaf ears.
The reactions to the allegations have been mixed. In an interview with German newspaper Bild Ribery stated :
"No, I’m not afraid for my future, my career. Neither with the national team nor at Bayern. Not even the day in court in Paris, because I did not knowingly do any wrong. I am sure I will regain the confidence of the people who perhaps doubt me now. I want to entertain them again. I want to show them great dribbling skills, simply give a positive feeling and score goals. Just like before”.
In a similarly strange response Bayern Munichs Chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told Bild:
"I think this is a politically motivated story because of the French national team’s poor performance at the World Cup. Ribéry is to be made the scapegoat”.
Both these reactions seem to gloss over the fact that Ribery acted in a fairly immoral and illegal way and it is not really the expected of a sportsman in the public eye. It seems to be a fairly weak response especially if you draw comparisons with recent scandals involving Scottish and English players.
The “Boozegate” scandal that rocked Scottish football last year involved national team players Barry Ferguson (captain) and Alan McGregor. Both players were caught boozing late into the night on the eve of an important World Cup qualifying match and as a result demoted to the bench for the game. However, further acts of petulance (flicking V-signs to the photographers), a media campaign and public outcry resulted in club suspension, censure (Glasgow Rangers) and both players being banned from any further representation at national level.
In the lead up to the World Cup England captain John Terry was found to be having an affair with the ex- girlfriend of national team mate Wayne Bridge. The press had a field day and the scandal filled the front sheets and news headlines across the country. As a result politicians, pundits and celebrities alike clammered to vent their disgust at such an abhorrent act by England’s team leader. The result was public castigation and Terry being stripped of the captaincy.
In both of these scandals the guilty parties acted with a fair degree of stupidity and questionable principles but at no-time broke the law. Despite this the punishment was merciless, severe and in the court of public opinion.
The private lives of footballers are sensationalized by tabloid newspapers on regular basis in the UK and the various player aberrations (depending on the seriousness) are usually forgiven with time and success. But it seems that players in the British Isles have a higher level of behavior to abide by. Of course it is no surprise to learn of one of our players to be caught with his pants down, drunkenly smash his Bentley into a lamppost or be involved in late night scrap but the punishment is usually swift and rigid, if not custodial.
The more continental response or “laisser faire” attitude sometimes seems lenient or maybe the British view is harsh and out of date?