In light of France’s win in the 2018 World Cup final, here’s our Issue 20 feature looking at the legacy of their 1998 victory on home soil

PAUL BREEN looks back at the success of Les Bleus on home soil in 1998 and how it fleetingly brought French people of all races and religions together. He contemplates how much has changed since and whether that legacy was simply wasted.

“We love France and everything that is France… France is made up of Arab culture, black African culture, black West Indian culture and white culture, and we, a squad that reflects that multiculturalism, are all fighting in the same way and united.” French defender Mamadou Sakho, quote from November 2013.

France has never had the same prolonged nationwide love affair with football as its British neighbours on the other side of the Channel. There is no French version of Nick Hornby, and no stand-out work of literature serving as a social commentary on the beautiful game. Aside from the traditional geographical split between rugby in the north and soccer in the south, the game is seen as belonging to the working classes – a sport of the banlieues.

To those looking in from the outside, these banlieues are places characterised by social housing, sporadic riots, radicalism, poverty and otherness. Franck Ribéry, for example, is a child of the suburbs – a Muslim convert as renowned for his activities off the field as on the pitch. This he has in common with Karim Benzema, who has come to represent all that the French media and middle classes see as being wrong with a sport that breeds its stars in the slums.

None of these boys from the banlieue will ever gain the golden status of Harry Kane in their national consciousness. Nobody will portray them as the incarnation of their country’s values dressed in a football shirt. Even in the tough suburbs where they grew up, first loyalties are often directed towards the former colonies of north Africa, or club sides from outside of France.

And yet, for one summer, France’s love affair with football reached fever pitch. Perhaps if Nick Hornby were to script the story of that brief period, he’d begin with the scene of a postcard from a July night twenty years ago. Though the colours might be fading and the writing on the back idealistic in hindsight, the photograph on the front remains as powerful now as it did then.

England’s images of national pride, in football, often feature men such as Bobby Moore holding trophies, hoisted on the shoulders of their team mates. The captain, the leader, is elevated in a display of hierarchy. But for France – self-proclaimed land of liberty, fraternity and equality – the goal is to stand shoulder to shoulder as a band of brothers in the service of the republic.

This postcard from Paris then would be composed of eleven men as the embodiment of their nation, wearing red, white and blue – the colours of the tricolore, the country’s national flag. Apart from the characteristic figure of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, shaven headed and wearing black, the rest don’t stand out physically, smothered in the shades of the stadium around them. They are all one, like D’Artagnan and his three musketeers – united by the motif of a golden cockerel on their chests; the symbol of republican France.

In their faces you can see a nervousness and anticipation. A weight of expectation too, for this is the night of the World Cup final where they play host to the mighty Brazilians, favourites to lift the trophy, yet again, even on European soil. These eleven men represent not just their country, but perhaps their continent too – the sacrifice of individual identity for the good of the team. In the fever of this moment, they represent not just a new France but a Europe that is changing too, demographically, culturally and physically.

That night, that summer, they were “an idealised nation in miniature” according to Katherine Poor (2008), a perfect mix of Black, Blanc and Beur – the melting pot of races that characterise France in practice, if not quite in theory. The theory of France after all, as a united and secular nation is a complicated one. Much like Britain’s relationship with Ireland, the idea of a freedom loving nation seems hugely contradicted by the historic brutality of a colonial past. Yet, in 1998, Britain and Ireland had just signed the Good Friday Agreement, reaching an historic peace after centuries of distrust and conflict.

At the heart of that agreement there was a recognition of different identities – Britishness and Irishness, even Irish Britishness, redefined for a better future. Simultaneously, Britishness was being redefined too – old slogans of Rule Britannia now replaced by Cool Britannia, characterised by multiculturalism in sport, music and the media, even if it came in manufactured Spice Girls’ form. You could be British and Muslim. You could be British and black. Twenty years earlier, the first black players to appear in England football shirts had encountered tabloid rage. Now, even if England’s 1998 World Cup team was largely white, nobody paid much attention to race.

The focus was on football and trying to take the World Cup back across the Channel – which once again ended in failure, thanks to a narrow penalty defeat at the boots of Argentina, rather than the hands that defined 1986. For hosts France though, the focus had been on race right from the start. This was largely to do with pronouncements by supporters of the Front National and right-wing elements of the press, regarding the number of ‘foreign’ players appearing in the national jersey of Les Bleus.

Fearing a rise in the far-right, the country needed symbols of unity, and they found that in the team that navigated a steady path to the World Cup final. The French team had not gone into the tournament as favourites, even though they were hosting the competition. Manager Aimé Jacquet had assembled a methodical group of players, expected to perform very differently to the Platini-inspired team that swept aside all opposition on home soil in the European Championships of 1984. Yet, in the opening games, against expectation, they breezed past their group opposition – beating South Africa 3-0 in Marseille, Saudi Arabia 4-0 in the new and shiny Stade de France in northern Paris, and then Denmark 2-1 in Lyon.

Sweeping through the group stage, they had also swept across the country geographically, which was important in unifying the nation behind the team. Then in the knockout stages, they moved north towards Lens, in the direction of rugby country, and defeated Paraguay. A narrow 4-3 shoot-out victory over Italy followed in the next round to set up a semi-final clash with Croatia, dark horses who hammered France’s old foes Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals.

By now, something more than football had captured the imagination of the French public. They found in their national team a sense of aspiration for the country itself – a place where unity and a common identity as citizens of France transcended racial or religious difference. Here was a team composed of various races, playing together as one in the name and spirit of France – bringing together the likes of Zinedine Zidane of Algerian origin with Marcel Desailly from Ghana, and Lillian Thuram from the French Caribbean.

More than that though, in a feature which is often downplayed or overlooked, this was a team that brought together the different regions of France. For example, left back Bixente Lizarazu came from the Basque region whilst star midfielder Emmanuel Petit hailed from Normandy; and Fabien Barthez, Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc had all grown up in the south. The Blanc then, and not just Laurent, played as great a role in the identity of this team as Black and Beur. However, it was the presence of one outstanding player that gave this methodical team hope of winning the World Cup final.

Zinedine Zidane, an Algerian immigrant who’d grown up in the tough suburbs of Marseille, seemed an unlikely figurehead for French life and culture. Yet, for that one summer of 1998, he became more popular than any President. Though temperamental, Zidane was the most gifted player of his generation. For me personally, he is the greatest player I have ever seen live on a pitch in a list that includes Cristiano Ronaldo for Manchester United. To most people in France, that summer, his genius on the pitch was all that mattered. But some, for reasons of political expediency, used Zidane as an example of ‘the good Arab’ at a time when the far-right, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, had begun to spread doubts about the loyalty of Blacks and Beurs to the French state.

Several months before, at a time when Islamic terror wasn’t a focus of the media or public consciousness, authorities had foiled a plot by Algerian extremists to attack the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, whilst simultaneously orchestrating other atrocities. Suddenly, whole communities of Algerians and Muslims became falsely implicated as a consequence of their ancestry – fifth columnists in a land that they’d never been fully integrated into.

For Zidane, an unashamed Algerian, to become the poster boy of an idealised French team seemed a great victory for multiculturalism. The adoration in which he came to be held reached its fever pitch as the team defeated Croatia 2-1 in the semi-final and then stunned the football world with a 3-0 victory over Brazil through two goals from Zidane and one from Petit. That night in Paris, crowds thronged the Avenue des Champs-Élysées celebrating the success of Les Bleus. In their euphoria, they chanted for Zidane with such passion that if it were an election night, he’d have easily won the Presidency. The flags of Algeria and other former colonies flew alongside the Tricolore as ‘blonde, blanc and beur’ became the new trinity replacing red, white and blue.

And yet if we fast forward three years to 2001, we see a very different postcard delivered from the scene of the Stade de France. This was a night that should have been a further act of healing and a cementing of new moods and new relationships born out of Zidane and his team’s achievements. They had, after all, gone on to further acclaim two years after the World Cup by winning the Euro 2000 Championships in Holland and Belgium.

One year after that, on a symbolic October night, France played Algeria in the first game between the two nations since the north African colony won the battle for its independence in 1962. This time though, instead of singing La Marseillaise as one body, supporters of the visiting team booed the national anthem from the start. They booed Zidane too, as a traitor to his origins. Eventually the discontent would descend into rioting in the stands and a pitch invasion fifteen minutes before the end, forcing the game to be abandoned. Afterwards, Lillian Thuram, who got caught up in the pitch invasion, would be quoted as asking “why did these young people, most of whom were born in France, boo their country’s national anthem?”

Perhaps this display of rage was partly to do with international politics, and the events after the eleventh of September 2001 in the United States. Very quickly, America’s response to the infamous New York terror attack came to be seen as a modern crusade against Muslim nations and the Middle East. Yet, there was something more than George Bush’s warplanes ripping up the temporary illusion of national unity wrought from the World Cup victory. For all the euphoria around the symbolism of the 1998 team, nothing actually changed in the banlieues in economic terms.

Similarly, nothing meaningful had changed in terms of creating a common French identity that everyone in the country could adhere to. For many in politics and the media, the root cause of national problems was a simple one. Foreigners, even those whose families had lived in France for several generations, simply refused to bend the knee to national ideals. One of the most famous cases of this, which happened in later years, was a situation involving Muslim girls wearing headscarves at a private school. This was a forbidden act, a rebellion against the spirit of secularism. And yet for many Muslims it confirmed the idea that there is no place for them in France’s ideal sense of itself, unless they conform to the hated notion of ‘the good Arab.’

Through the 2000s these feelings seemed to grow, fuelled by social discontent in the banlieues and political reaction to them. Simultaneously, as French society struggled for unity, so too did the team by the decade’s end. The situation had not been helped by defeat to Italy in the 2006 World Cup final and the national embarrassment of Zidane getting sent off for headbutting an opponent. The renowned philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once said that “in football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team” but in 21st century France it seems more accurate to say that everything has been complicated by opposites within the team. This tension reached a peak during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when France crashed out in the first round, to a fresh sense of national ignominy.

Worst of all, it included an alleged dressing room mutiny against the manager Raymond Domenech, and the expulsion of star striker Nicolas Anelka. This, and other instances of controversy, caused what Andrew Hussey describes as the nation’s désamour – falling out of love with their football team. These days, rugby is perhaps slightly more popular as a team game throughout France as a whole, a sport where players are more visibly united in the service of the nation and in love with the game, not the money.

Possibly if the French football team had won Euro 2016, which they hosted but lost in the final to Portugal, the old romance might have been rekindled. But there’s a sense now of a society that has moved beyond a superficial fix for its identity crisis. With the nation beset by home-grown terrorism, and mixed attitudes towards the causes of that, France has bigger issues to deal with than football. But when looking back on postcards from the past, that summer of 1998, the question isn’t one of why so much has changed. The problems were there. The ideal of ‘Blanc, Black, Beur’ standing together as one was only a fact on the football field. Maybe the media should have looked more at why this wasn’t a representation of French society, and what could have been done better to make it one.

Paul Breen is the author of several works of fiction available on Amazon and is on Twitter @CharltonMen  

Advertisements