NOTE: I wrote this post several days before a devastating fire tore at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I decided, for a number of reasons, to sit on it for a short while, but I'm posting it now. It's a wandering bit of prose, really, that perhaps touches on some of the effects the French men's national team has on society.
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France recently played Iceland in a Euro 2020 qualifier and for days the matchup left me thinking about the 2018 FIFA World Cup and, more specifically, the French men's squad.
The play itself didn't inspire my meditations. (In fact, France's 4-0 win against Iceland was, for the most part, entirely expected. For Iceland, who beat enormous odds just to play last June, it was back to reality as young French superstar Kylian Mbappé found the holes in Iceland's defense and led Les Bleus to unambiguous success.) Instead, the roster held my interest. Head coach Didier Deschamps had made few changes from his 2018 World Cup-winning side, a side that had many looking back in time.
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In 1998, then-captain Zinedine Zidane led a multicultural French team to the promised land of international soccer, beating juggernaut Brazil in the World Cup final at the Stade de France in Paris. The victory helped inspire the moniker Black, Blanc, and Beur, a celebration of the squad's Black, white, and Arab players. It was more than just a celebration, though, as many touted Black, Blanc, and Beur as the new French paradigm: an integrated Eden.
Players like Zidane, born in Marseille to Algerian immigrants, as well as Patrick Vieira and Lilian Thuram, born in Senegal and Guadeloupe, respectively, were the apparent evidence of the successful (or imminently successful) racial and cultural integration.
But prognostication’s a tricky business.
Even before France's World Cup victory in 1998, politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, called the team's makeup artificial and referred to some players as foreigners. Years later, after Les Bleus failed to win a match in the South Africa World Cup, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said ethnic and religious divisions undermined the team and he criticized the provenance of some Black players who came from the banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris. And the French Football Federation itself has since been subject to allegations that it had in place discriminatory racial quotas to limit he number of dual-national youth players in development.
The idyll in Eden, it seems, was a fantasy.
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20 years after Zidane and Les Bleus won in Paris, the French men's squad again hoisted the FIFA World Cup, this time in Russia. Led by superstar Mbappé, players like Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kanté, and Samuel Umtiti became champions in the most compelling World Cup tournament in recent history. In doing so, they’ve seemingly come to represent the new Black, Blanc, and Beur as immigrants, the children of immigrants, and Muslims.
But the moniker again misses the mark. Notwithstanding the poetry of it, holding a group of footballers out as the de facto beacon of an integrated society doesn't guarantee anything, despite whatever success they achieve. That said, to ignore the presence and accomplishments of players like Mbappé, Pogba, and Kante would be to err in equal measure.
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At least 50 players at the 2018 World Cup in Russia were born in France and nearly 30 percent of those were born in Paris. Many of those players come from the banlieues of Paris, sometimes low-income areas and often populated by immigrants. In line with FIFA's laws on international play, some Parisian-born players represented countries like Portugal, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia. Indeed, France may not be Eden, but it's an undeniable wellspring of footballing brilliance.
And amid all that talent, Mbappé and Co. have distinguished themselves (for both club and country).
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France continues to suffer the violence of racial and religious unrest, and despite that tragedy and trauma (and all the ill-conceived attempts to shoehorn Les Bleus into some Elysian ideal), the team’s talented players captivate and inspire. Reflecting on his 1998 World Cup win, Zidane said: “It was not about religion, the colour of your skin, we didn’t care about that, we were just together and enjoyed the moment.”
And last year, Mbappé told an interviewer: “For me, football is more than just a sport . . . People come to the stadium to forget their lives for 90 minutes, and it’s up to us to take care of them, to take them out of their seats so they fall asleep with stars in their eyes.”
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Too often, fans and critics seek absolutes in soccer. International tournaments, especially, yield new symbolism as well as tired sociopolitical analogies. But symbols are relative and neither life nor football is absolute. Zidane and Mbappé don't guarantee anything about society, but they add an undeniable richness to a beautiful game and, outside of 90 minutes, they may serve as inspiration in an often harsh world. During those 90 minutes, however, it's enough that a player strives to play so brilliantly that fans are compelled to stand in awe and walk away with stars in their eyes.