PARIS, April 21 – Four years after his fairytale breakthrough at the 2006 World Cup, Franck Ribery is reeling from a season ravaged by injury, transfer rumours and now allegations of relations with an under-age prostitute.Revelations about the human trafficking case in which Ribery and his France team-mate Sidney Govou were called as witnesses sparked a media storm at the weekend that refuses to be calmed. Bitterly for Ribery, his nightmare season had looked like it was about to turn a corner.
Bayern Munich announced to no great surprise on Tuesday morning that Philipp Lahm would be taking Ribery’s place at the press conference prior to the first leg of their Champions League semi-final with Lyon the following day.
"This is, of course, an issue for us," conceded Bayern’s director of sport Christian Nerlinger. "But for the time being, we have to concentrate on the football, including Franck."
Bayern instructed their players not to respond to journalists’ questions about the affair.
In Tuesday’s training session, Ribery’s every move was pored over by scores of photographers, reporters and television crews from all over the world.
Over 1,000 kilometres from Munich, the Spanish press bristled. Tuesday’s edition of the Marca daily claimed that "the scandal diminishes to an almost definitive extent" Ribery’s chances of joining Real Madrid, who were reportedly preparing a bid for the former Marseille man.
Paradoxically, the one team that could stand to benefit from the affair is Bayern.
Desperate to cling onto one of their marquee names, the Bavarian club’s directors presented Ribery with a luxury pen on his birthday earlier in April and said they hoped he would use it to sign a new contract.
His current deal expires at the end of June 2011 and, prior to the scandal, Ribery had vowed to make a decision on his future within ten days, with Real, Barcelona and Chelsea all believed to be ready to pounce should he choose to leave Germany.
Persistent transfer rumours have already had a negative impact on Ribery’s profile. His contradictory statements about his future last summer saw ‘Kaiser Franck’ labelled a "diva", with the usually appreciative German tabloid Bild even calling him ‘Mr Bullshit’ in a headline.
His start to the season was delayed by a scarcely credible series of niggling injuries including blisters, swollen toes and tendinitis in his left knee, earning him new nicknames from the media such as ‘Krank Ribery’ (‘Sick Ribery’) and ‘the French Patient’.
Ribery admitted to a lack of warmth in his relationship with coach Louis van Gaal and the pair enjoyed frosty relations for a number of weeks before a truce was finally called.
The Dutch coach rallied to Ribery’s cause in front of the press on Monday, insisting: "He was only spoken to as a witness."
Ribery has also run into trouble with France coach Raymond Domenech, who continues to deploy captain Thierry Henry on the left flank despite Ribery’s frequent public utterances that he wants to play there.
Domenech recently promised to chase all the "egos" out of his squad "with a shotgun". Was Ribery the intended target? He’s already the target of the European media ahead of Bayern’s meeting with Lyon on Wednesday night, 50 days before the World Cup and 20 days before Domenech announces his squad for the tournament on May 11.