Does McChrystal play for France?

Eerie parallel between travails of French football team and those of the top US general in Afghanistan?

    At the risk of insubordination:

    Is there not an eerie parallel between the travails of the French national football team and those of the United States' top man in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal?

    Of late, each has greatly suffered at the hands of reporters revealing things they apparently weren't supposed to.

    France's team self-imploded in the World Cup after the usually quite writerly sports newspaper L'Equipe ran an utterly vulgar headline on June 19.

    It was apparently printing the words of star striker Nicolas Anelka uttered to France coach Raymond Domenech at half-time, during the recent match France lost to Mexico.

    Bowdlerized, Anelka is said by L'Equipe to have encouraged his coach to engage in a highly vigorous form of brotherly love proscribed in the Bible, all while casting hurtful aspersions about the past profession of the same coach's mother.

    The leaked insult violated an unwritten code between usually sycophantic French sports reporters, and usually prima-donnaish French sports stars: thou shalt not speak the locker-room truth.

    Alas, the truth (give or take a swear word or two) was spoken.

    And it caused Anelka to be kicked off the team.

    That led the team captain to denounce the unidentified "traitor" in the locker-room who dared repeat the insult to L'Equipe.

    That denunciation and the resulting tension then caused (bonjour, la France!) a player's strike on a training pitch (name: "Field of Dreams") right in front of confused fans and a bevy of TV cameras.

    That strike led to - yes, there's more - the team's trainer quitting in disgust and - no, we're not finished yet - to the first-round elimination of France (1998 World Champions and 2006 runners-up) by the sentimental-favourite but otherwise-weak hosts, South Africa.

    Even in France, where the theatre of the absurd can still pack a Parisian theatre, this level of absurdity was too much: some three-quarters of French people wanted their national team to lose.

    At least the team got that right.

    Photo by AFP

    Enter Stanley McChrystal.

    His problem is a profile in Rolling Stone magazine article, entitled "The Runaway General".

    Its imminent publication caused the man running the American and Nato military in Afghanistan to be summoned out of a war zone for a face-to-face scolding at the White House, and for his press adviser to resign in disgrace.

    The article flaunts locker-room language whenever possible, but is sycophantic in its own way.

    It emphasises the bullet-spitting toughness of the counterinsurgency and Special Forces supremo tasked with fixing Afghanistan.

    But then come the Equipe moments, when the locker-room secrets are put on public view:

    Vice-President Joe Biden, a counter-insurgency sceptic, is, quips McChrystal: "Joe Who?"

    Upon receiving an email from America's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, McChrystal says:

    "Oh, not another email from Holbrooke. I don't even want to open it."

    But what has perhaps angered President Barack Obama - as much as the Equipe scoop and ensuing brouhaha angered the French - are lines like these:

    "McChrystal may have sold President Obama on the counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren't buying it."

    As with victory at the World Cup, success in war (Obama, let's remember, does not speak of "victory" in Afghanistan) is something you have to believe in.

    McChrystal and the French football squad have proved two things:

    1. Being brusque or mocking your bosses is never a good career move.

    2. Self-doubt is the most insidious of enemies, and reporters are not always to be blamed for saying what coaches and generals wish they wouldn't.

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