The French team celebrating after winning the group match. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP
When Emmanuel Petit found the net in injury time against Brazil on 12 July 1998 at the Stade de France in Paris, it was a historic moment for French football. The national team had never won the sport’s most prestigious tournament before, and what’s more, the team that won it was setting a new standard in multicultural, multi-ethnic Europe. France had never quite had a team like that: Eight of the 22-man squad were black, and four more were of Armenian, Argentine, Kalmyk and Spanish descent. It was a team adored by many, but also hated by some, even within France. Two years before the World Cup, as this team was coming together, the right-wing National Front Party leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, had said, “(It is) artificial to bring in players from abroad and then call them the French team.”
The man who scored two headed goals in the final was someone who hated using his head when he started off as a footballer—the great Zinadine Zidane. He was the symbol of this new France: A once-in-a-lifetime footballer with preternatural skills and great composure, he was of Algerian Kabyle Berber descent.
It was his face that shone on the Eiffel Tower as more than a million people gathered at the Champs-Élysées to celebrate the “black, blanc et Beur (black, white and Arab)” French team. “Zidane for president,” they chanted.
Eighteen years later, and in times worse than ever when it comes to racial tension in the country and around the world, another French team has been assembled to compete in an international tournament at home.
Thirteen of the 23 players in the Euro 2016 squad are non-white. Seven of them have African roots. Playmaker Yohan Cabaye is of Vietnamese descent.
It may not be as vibrant as the 1998 squad, but one cannot ignore the international flavour of this French team. Despite this, coach Didier Deschamps has been accused of choosing his players based on race.
Hatem Ben Arfa, who describes himself as a moderately practising Muslim and has Tunisian roots, scored 18 goals and set up six for Nice this season but was left out. Karim Benzema, who has been embroiled in a sex-tape scandal, was also left out. Benzema won the Champions League with Real Madrid, banging in 28 goals this season. A practising Muslim, he is of Algerian descent.
The decision to leave them out was questioned openly by the outspoken Manchester United and France legend Éric Cantona: “Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know. Like the Mormons in America. So I’m not surprised he used the situation of Benzema not to take him. And Ben Arfa is, maybe, the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that.”
France’s defender Adil Rami (in blue) during a group match at the Euro 2016. Photo: Francisco Leong/AFPThe recent past in France has been especially tense: the Charlie Hebdo killings, the Paris attacks and Stade de France explosions apart, the nation has been grappling with immigration. A 2013 survey said 70% of the people in France thought there were too many foreigners in the country. It also said that 46% believed unemployment levels could only be tackled by reducing immigration, that 57% believed anti-white racism was quite common in France, 77% believed religious fundamentalism in France was a concern, and 62% said they no longer felt at home in France.
France is also home to the largest Muslim population in Europe. Yet the French football team remains a symbol of unity—a young, mixed, multi-ethnic squad out to prove themselves in their first major tournament. This is a French squad that has the potential, even without 28-goal Benzema, to win. They have a power-packed midfield in Blaise Matuidi (Angolan father), N’golo Kanté (of Malian descent) and young Paul Pogba (Guinean descent), already a superstar. All three—Matuidi for Paris Saint-Germain, Kanté for Leicester City and Pogba for Juventus—are league winners this season.
Their forward line includes Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid, Champions League finalists), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Dimitri Payet (who has already scored a stunning goal in the tournament, against Romania), Anthony Martial (dubbed the next Thierry Henry) and Kingsley Coman (who, at the age of 20, has won titles in Italy, Germany and France). It’s a young but experienced attack that can dismantle any defence on its day. Hopes are high in France, and not without reason.
But here’s why 2016 could be as important as 1998: Like then, the National Front has gained steam in the spate of hate against immigration and radical religious groups. In the last elections, it got a 28% vote share. That is 13% more than its previous best in the 1990s.
Which is why it’s not surprising that the François Hollande regime felt the need to play up Euro 2016 with an advertising campaign by TV Channel TF1 in which people from various backgrounds and a variety of accents are backing the team to win. “Make us dream. We need it !” is the slogan.
It’s not just about the politics and culture, though. France has had to suffer embarrassment on the international football stage, the worst of which came in the Fifa World Cup 2010, which saw a mutiny by players and the team crashing out in the group stages after losing to hosts South Africa.
The response to the failure was best summed up by Andrew Hussey for The Observer: “The then minister for sport, Roselyne Bachelot, described the players as acting likecaïds immatures—immature petty gangsters (there is also a racial twist here; caïd is a word borrowed from north African Arabic). The team of 2010 was also dubbed ‘l’equipe racaille—the scum team.’”
As Lillian Thuram of France, which won the Fifa World Cup in 1998, put it: “France ’98 was a historical landmark which liberated a certain reflection on French society.”
But the exploits of the rainbow team have now been forgotten. A new generation needs to rise. A new triumph is required. A new liberation. A new landmark. France needs a cultural revival, and Euro 2016 is the perfect opportunity.
Pulasta Dhar is an I-League commentator and news editor (sport) at Scoopwhoop.