France’s second-biggest city is a gateway into the country. Marseille sits on the glittering Mediterranean, a few miles down from the bucolic fields that Vincent van Gogh painted in Provence, and a few more further from the grandeur of Monaco. Marseille is another extreme from these two map references; it has a population of 850,000, just under a quarter of those identify as Muslim, and over 30,000 of the town are of Algerian descent. This once included the greatest footballer ever to represent the nation of France.
Zinedine Zidane vs. Brazil, World Cup 2006
The greatest performance of Zizou's career? pic.twitter.com/jBZy59AX7p
— FIRST 11 (@FlRST11) April 29, 2017
Zinedine Zidane embodies not just French football, but to many people, France itself. The class, the elegance, the passion, the flicker of fire behind his eyes: he stood on top of the world in 1998, and he jumped from it in 2006. When he headbutted Marco Materazzi in the digital age, Zidane became a meme; but it was when France lifted le Coup de Monde after beating Brazil 3-0 at the Stade de France, that Zidane became a symbol. Well, more than a symbol. He became poetry. Mythical, ripe for interpretation, but undeniable in his grace and finesse.
And just as Zizou represents so much more about French culture than the beautiful game, the rest of that side were written into French folklore too as an embodiment of togetherness and unification. Vieira, Deschamps, Blanc, Petit, Thuram, Djorkaeff, Pirès, and the fulcrum himself: like Marseille, like France itself, the team were what you might lazily call “a melting pot”. Just as the French flag was red, white and blue, its sporting heroes were black-blanc-beur (black, white, Arab).
This was a symbol too perfect for French president Jacques Chirac. As the immigration-wary National Front were pushing their agenda further into the mainstream, Chirac jumped on the image of the French national team, and cosied up to Zidane. Les Bleus were the perfect metaphor for why multiculturalism worked: a collection of men with Arab, African, Portuguese, Caribbean and Eastern European ancestry, all pulling together for the love of France.
Zizou himself was asked by the French president in 2002 to take a stand publicly against the far-right election candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He went on national television to voice his opinions, and Le Pen was beaten in the second round of voting.
France is a multi-coloured nation, so [France ’98] was also a good time to talk about colonialism, slavery… Also 1998 was the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in France, so I think it brought all these questions out into the open.
Politics and sport have far more in common than just the occasional sharing of a left and right wing. Sport is a cause for national pride, and every shrewd leader in modern history has recognised the importance of harnessing it. Under Nazi dictatorship, Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a means of spreading white supremacist propaganda, and at the total other end of the spectrum, London mayor Boris Johnson hung from a zip-wire during his city’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics, union flags poking from his hands, drumming up support for a future assault on a seat in Downing Street.
Most poignantly, most relevantly to Chirac and France, Nelson Mandela had posed three years earlier in a South African rugby jersey, alongside Springboks captain Francois Pienaar. There, the first black president of the country stood alongside a hero of a white, elitist sport. Mandela turned his back on the old practices – black South Africans in the ’70s used to cheer for whoever played their oppressors in rugby matches – and offered to shake hands with an opposite culture.
Who could doubt that sport is a crucial window for the propagation of fair play and justice? After all, fair play is a value that is essential to sport.
It will be twenty years next year since the carnival of France ’98. The world is a very different place. A lot less sunnier, a lot scarier, and a lot more David Guetta. But some things remain. Marine Le Pen, has just fought the French election. Zinedine Zidane, still the focal point of a star-studded football institution, recently stood up to encourage his country not to vote for her policies. French football too, is still united by its differences.
Euro 2016 marked a turning point for the French, because it was the first time in a long time that the national side had pulled together as one. For too long, controversies marred the morale of the side, and often, they were race-related. The team is fresh with a new face, and while it doesn’t feel like a sequel to the 1998 best-seller, it feels unified, at least.
The hero of the piece, Antoine Griezmann, is of Portuguese descent. His grandfather played for Portugal, and Antoine himself has been living in Spain since the age of 14. He almost has a Spanish head with a French heart when he plays, and UEFA’s Ioan Lupescu waxed lyrical over his teamwork when justifying his status as the player of Euro 2016. He is the poster boy for this strange period of recent French horrors – his sister actually survived the Bataclan attack of that horrific night in Paris, in November 2015 – in that despite having good reason to ply his trade for another country, he gives his all for the love of France. That’s the foundation of immigration. And though Griezmann is not as dramatic or as refined an example of multiculturalism as Zizou, he represents the outward look that French football would like to think it has on the world. He’s not quite poetry yet. He’s an icon though.
Griezmann aside, France are producing eclectic talents again, as they did two decades ago. Aymeric Laporte is Basque, the second-ever Frenchman to represent Athletic Bilbao after World Cup winner Bixente Lizarazu. Samuel Umtiti is Cameroon-born, Presnel Kimpembe is half-Haitain, half-Congolese, and Thomas Lemar has family from Guadeloupe, just like France’s top scorer in ’98, Thierry Henry. Despite previous boss Laurent Blanc suggesting otherwise in 2011, Wylan Cyprien and Paul Pogba are fine examples of players with technique and passing range deft enough, to dispel racist myths of black footballers only being what Twitter might call, “powerhouses”. There are fewer players from Arabic descent these days playing for Les Bleus – which is a dent in the black-blanc-beur image – but with Lyon’s Nabil Fekir turning his back on Algeria and earning a cap for the French in the last year, there is a slither of representation.
While Antoine Griezmann and Kylian M’Bappé fight it out for who will become the most expensive footballer on Earth this summer (and Pogba hopes the title remains with him), next summer, the hopes of the nation will rest on all three of them, and the rest of a squad with differing cultures and colours. Didier Deschamps has a job that the English don’t understand the half of. No, he doesn’t recognise when his midfield looks unbalanced, but that’s the least of his worries really. The French coach is a beacon of hope: Deschamps, specifically, is an ember of 1998 nostalgia, the loudest voice in the changing room, who united the egos to bring home glory.
He’s still doing it. In a way, so is Zinedine Zidane in Madrid. The French team has so often been used as a mirror to French culture, or as a relief to hardship; but with France looking one of the favourites for Russia 2018, will incoming president Emmanuel Macron harness sport in his leadership of the country, just as his predecessors did? One for thing’s for sure: French culture will impact hugely whatever the result.