It is 11am on the evening of July 12 1998. France have just beaten Brazil 3-0 to win the World Cup, and an entire city is going crazy.
More than a million people flood the Champs Elysees. Hundreds of thousands are dancing in the streets, men and women, young and old, black and white. Paris is a whirlpool of delight at the centre of a tide of euphoria that sweeps the country.
A vast image of Zinedine Zidane is projected on the Arc de Triomphe. Above it, along the top of the arch, the message “Merci Zizou” flashes through the night. In among the thousands of tricolors can be seen Algerian flags waving in homage to the two-goal hero and his immigrant roots.
“I have never seen France like that,” said Thierry Henry. Some likened it to a revolution. And many continue to compare the emotions of that night, and the celebration that lasted uninterrupted through the following 24 hours and on into Bastille Day, with the joy of liberation in 1944.
Like every great sporting moment in the life of a nation, France’s World Cup triumph has a mythical status.
That year did change the standing of football in France and it did change public attitudes, at least for a while. France became European Champions two years later, football became fashionable, attendances in Ligue 1 rose by 60% in four years. Big clubs emerged or were reborn: First in Lyon, then in Paris. Football itself became more inclusive. The 1998 side was a huge advertisement for integration.
Several were born abroad: Patrick Vieira in Senegal, Marcel Desailly in Ghana, Lilian Thuram in Guadeloupe, Christian Karembeu in New Caledonia. Others were the sons of immigrants: From Argentina — David Trezeguet — or Armenia in the case of Youri Djorkaeff and Alain Boghassian. Robert Pirès had grown up speaking Spanish and Portuguese at home, Thierry Henry’s parents were from Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Only a minority could be described as ‘pure French’. Zidane’s Algerian background made him the most powerful symbolic figure, a representative of the marginalised communities, mostly Muslim, that settled in France during and after the colonial war that had killed hundreds of thousands and almost torn France apart.
Politicians of every hue (apart from the far-right Front National) looked to associate themselves with the team’s success. All the players were awarded the legion d’honneur, as was manager Aime Jacquet. Outside football, many hailed the World Cup win as the birth of a new enlightened, racially tolerant and inclusive society.
Even at the time it seemed naive to elevate a group of footballers to such heights. Now it seems delusional.
And that delusion has created problems for French football, above all in 2010 in South Africa when players rebelled against the manager and the team returned home in disgrace.
Nicolas Anelka, the chief instigator, was banned for 18 games (in effect for life) and later was involved in further strife because of his association with the anti-Jewish activist Dieudonne.
Six years on from their low point in South Africa, the pressure on the French team to perform at home in Euro 2016 is enormous. Never mind the pressure of the competition itself, the political stakes could hardly be higher.
The country is seven months into the state of emergency introduced after the terrorist attacks in Paris and the government is also confronting the trade unions after imposing changes to labour laws. Riot police have been confront ing strikers and there are continuing raids by security forces in the suburbs, hunting for suspected Muslim radicals.
The politicians are praying for a successful, trouble-free tournament that can at least alleviate the crisis and possibly invoke the mood of that glorious summer 18 years ago, this time with Didier Deschamps as manager rather than captain.
As in 1998, he leads a multi-ethnic group of players. Moussa Sissoko’s parents are from Mali, Paul Pogba’s from Guinea, both Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial have their roots in Guadeloupe, Dmitri Payet was born on the island of Reunion, Samuel Umtiti and Steve Mandanda both arrived in France at the age of two, from Cameroon and Congo, Blaise Matuidi’s father came to France from Angola.
So this is the worst possible moment for a public row over racism, sparked by Eric Cantona’s accusations about the non-selection of Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema.
Benzema, like Zidane before him, comes from an Algerian family and had to cope with a tough upbringing in the suburbs — in his case in Lyon, rather than Marseille or Paris.
He faces possible charges of complicity in an alleged blackmail attempt over a sex tape featuring fellow France international Mathieu Valbuena. The scandal has been simmering for almost two years but Benzema was definitively excluded in April, shortly before winning his second Champions League with Madrid.
Cantona has never been best friends with Deschamps and still resents his own exclusion from the national team. An added twist is that he was replaced by Zidane, now Benzema’s manager at Real Madrid.
He may also be stirring things because of the suspicion that the stars of 1998 have carved up French football and always back each other in public. Some in the French media claim there is a so-called France 98 Lobby, like an unofficial Masonic lodge.
In 2011 Zidane backed the then manager Laurent Blanc in another racism row, about alleged quotas for racial minorities, and so far he has remained silent about the Benzema business.
Benzema himself has avoided personal accusations. “I get on well with Didier,” he said in an interview with Madrid sports paper Marca. He blames his exclusion on political pressures from the racist right and individual hostile journalists.
Cantona has also made allegations about the non-selection of Hatem Ben Arfa, another with a north African background, and Deschamps is threatening to sue. It may be fortunate that he has given a late call-up to Sevilla centre back Adil Rami, whose family is from Morocco, although he was born in Corsica.
Tensions over selection policy are the last thing that he, and indeed France, needs.
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