With its shelving of club rivalries, international week is usually a signal for the European football media to drop its intensity down a notch or two. Just as with any rule, however, there are exceptions, and there is rarely the prospect of a quiet week where Patrice Evra is involved.
Given everything that the Manchester United left-back has been through on France duty, it’s extraordinary to consider that he is on the brink of a return to the World Cup, ahead of the two-legged play-off against Ukraine. He was the captain that presided over the "Bus of Shame" episode at France’s 2010 World Cup training camp at Knysna.
As France’s players refused to train in support of the expelled Nicolas Anelka, Evra was the visible face of rebellion, explaining the situation to fitness coach Robert Duverne, who memorably threw his stopwatch into some nearby bushes in a fit of pique. It was an enduring image.
It became political. Even months after the incident—and Evra’s five-match ban for his perceived part in it—sports minister Chantal Jouanno repeatedly made plain her opposition to Evra (and Franck Ribery) returning to the France squad.
The simmering, ill feeling from the aftermath of Knysna resurfaced recently when Evra accused television pundits of “lying” about his unpopularity in France in a tempestuous interview with Telefoot (in French). “I don’t have a problem with anyone—just with the commentators,” Evra stormed.
In the oft-paranoid environment surrounding France post-2010, centred on public perception, it seemed Evra might have talked himself into a ban, but the Federation Francaise de Football (FFF) declined to punish him. Didier Deschamps has also ducked the discussion. “It’s your debate—I’ll leave you to it,” the coach told journalists last week, as reported here in French publication L’Equipe.
Whatever anyone thinks of Evra, it is clear that he still has value to France. He was the hidden catalyst behind the important 4-2 win over Belarus in September’s World Cup qualifying match. With Les Bleus 1-0 down at half-time it was he—rather than Deschamps—who gave a rousing dressing-room pep talk that inspired his side to turn things around, despite not even playing.
Still the vibrant personality that he ever was, Evra is popular and respected in the dressing room. There was a window into the affection that his international colleagues hold him in after last month’s resounding friendly win over Australia. Explaining an early miss in the game, Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud remarked with a big grin that it was due to being “so surprised by Evra putting a good ball in,” to laughter from the floor, once again via L'Equipe.
Giroud has the easy charm to pull something like that off but still felt the need to point out that it was a joke. In the context of the national team, controversy follows Evra around like a cloud, so too much ambiguity doesn’t pay.
There is no doubt that his on-pitch reactions are not quite as keen as they once were, particularly in terms of his defensive positioning, an area in which his concentration seems to have waned in recent years. He was solid for the majority of United’s win over Arsenal on Sunday but flagged to allow international teammate Bacary Sagna the opportunity to deliver a number of dangerous balls from the right in the game’s closing stages.
At international level, this may even be less of an issue. Evra is lucky to have the tireless Blaise Matuidi on his side, with the left-sided midfielder having experience of playing left-back at club level and both the athleticism and awareness to drop in and help the United man when he’s in trouble.
Evra has been aided by the failure of his competitors to stake their claims—Gael Clichy’s form is patchy and Benoit Tremoulinas appears out of sight and out of mind at Dynamo Kiev—but the 32-year-old is a born survivor.
He also said on the Telefoot interview that he plans to tell all on what happened at Knysna after he retires. His autobiography, you sense, will be one that’s worth reading.