French football in chaos: Le Graet under investigation and the undoing of bad culture

As an ESPN source put it, talking about Noel Le Graet after weeks of chaos inside the French Football Federation is like discussing "the fall of the Godfather."

After previously believing he was untouchable in his role as FFF president, Le Graet, 81, "took a step back" from his role after being put under pressure by the federation executive committee last week, a full two years before the end of his latest term in charge. The Paris prosecutor's office also opened an investigation against him for sexual harassment, accusations that he strongly denies, and it's the latest twist (although an expected one) in the chaos that has been raging within the French federation over the past few months.

Prior to his exit, Le Graet had carried himself as an omnipotent leader who thought he was untouchable. For his 12 years at the helm, the former Ligue 1 president and former mayor/president of Guingamp (currently in Ligue 2) ran the federation by himself. He made every decision alone, from choosing the hierarchy around him in key positions to the latest big development in French football, the new three-and-a-half-year contract given to France head coach Didier Deschamps. It was agreed by Le Graet and never discussed with the executive committee, as it should have been.

The FFF is supposed to function like any other major sporting federation. It has three committees. The first one is the federal assembly, which has delegates from all over the country representing professional clubs, grassroots/semi-pro teams, regional leagues and departmental leagues. Every four years, this assembly elect the executive committee, composed of 12 members who choose the president and make the big decisions, and the high authority of football (20 members with a more low-key role).

The first misdemeanour to push Le Graet towards the door revolved around his comments three weeks ago on French radio station RMC. In an interview, he disrespected Zinedine Zidane by stating he would not pick up the phone if the 1998 World Cup called him, and that he didn't care where the France legend and World Cup winner was going to manage next.

"I know very well that Zidane was always on the radar. He had a lot of supporters, some were waiting for Deschamps' departure. ... But who can make serious reproaches to Deschamps? Nobody. [Zidane] does what he wants, it's none of my business. I've never met him; we've never considered parting with Didier. He can go where he wants, to a club. ... If Zidane tried to contact me? Certainly not, I wouldn't even pick up the phone."

These remarks didn't go unnoticed as so many French football stars, starting with Kylian Mbappe, jumped in to defend the former No. 10. "You don't disrespect a legend like Zidane. He is France," said the PSG prodigy. Le Graet walked his remarks back quickly, but even Deschamps emerged to condemn Le Graet's remarks. "His words, as he acknowledged and admitted, were inappropriate," Deschamps said when asked. "I think it's a very good thing that he apologised to Zizou."

By that point, Le Graet had more or less burned through any remaining goodwill with players, the FFF and the French government, though he'd been in trouble for his public comments before. In 2020, he dismissed Neymar's claims of racist abuse after a fiery derby between PSG and Marseille by stating that "racism doesn't exist in football." This seemed to contradict his remarks from 2019, after several Ligue 1 games were halted temporarily by referees for anti-gay chants, after new rules had been introduced the previous summer granting officials the power to stop play.

"We will make sure there are no more [anti-gay banners and chants], but stopping a game? No," he said in an interview with French radio station France Info. "I would not stop the games -- totally against this -- but I would stop a match if there are racist chants, that is clear."

Beyond his step-down as FFF president, the most damning thing for Le Graet involves recent revelations about his alleged behaviour with women. Some current and former federation female employees have complained about his inappropriate behaviour via words, gestures or messages, according to reports in France. The nation's sports minister had asked for an audit back in October about the way the FFF is functioning under the 81-year-old, and the findings from the three experts collecting the information could be even more damaging. The audit will be published Monday.

Recently, Sonia Souid, a respected and FFF registered agent, told French newspaper L'Equipe and the police how she had been constantly pestered by the FFF president in an unprofessional and unwanted manner. "He very clearly said to me in his apartment that if I wanted him to help me, I had to let him have his way with me," said Souid. "He never looked at me like an agent, but like a piece of candy."

While France have been very successful on the pitch under the presidency of Le Graet -- the men's team won the 2018 World Cup and reached the 2022 World Cup final and the 2016 Euros final, while the women's team also reached the semifinals of the 2022 Euros -- within the federation it has been a disaster, with employee turnover and plenty of dissatisfaction over Le Graet's governance.

The next step is for him to fully resign, which he will do if the audit from the government, as we expect, is damming for him. For now, his vice-president, Philippe Diallo, 59, will be the interim president. Things will improve once a regime change is made, but fundamentally, the whole federation needs a revamp.

"My role is to run the federation with the help of the executive committee. Things are going well at the moment. We will wait for the audit to be published and see what happens next," Diallo told L'Equipe.

The FFF's issues haven't been exclusive to Le Graet: The federation was ordered to pay 10,000 euros in compensation to a former employee who had been harassed by Marc Varin, a former director of the federation. Varin was eventually let go. Le Graet's deputy, FFF director general Florence Hardouin, was suspended on Jan. 11 "as a precautionary measure," and she was hospitalized the following day after suffering a heart attack.

After stepping down, Le Graet cried as the reality of his exit hit home. He apologised for his comments on Zidane, to whom he said he has written a letter. He also swore on the life of each executive member that he has done nothing wrong and that the audit will have nothing against him.

Meanwhile, the executive committee has already held sessions without Le Graet as they try to plot a brighter, better and more equitable path forward.