The victory of a diverse French football team in this year’s World Cup created many parallels with Les Bleus’ previous success in 1998. Didier Deschamps
was at the centre of both triumphs having captained the team in 1998 and managed them in 2018. In many ways, it was a case of plus ça change, plus ça
reste la même chose.
Just as in 1998, the French footballing media did not demonstrate a universal sense of optimism prior to this year’s tournament. Indeed, this year’s
skepticism revolved around similar themes to those which were in evidence prior to the 1998 World Cup in France. Like Aimé Jacquet in 1998, Didier
Deschamps this year was charged with being overly conservative and not being at the head of a team whose style of play was not sufficiently exciting to
captivate the country, if indeed it could be said that the team had an established style of play.
The idea of iconic French sports teams being associated with a degree of flair or panache is more than just a cliché. The French public regularly expects
its leading football teams to produce what is often referred to as football champagne, a form of free-flowing and exciting football, rather than merely grind
out hard-earned narrow victories.
The symbolic power of France’s victory in Russia is very similar to that created by their win on home soil twenty years previously. The victory of a team
composed of so many players whose parents or grandparents were immigrants, and who grew up in often run-down suburban housing estates known
as banlieues, has been held up by politicians and the media as a symbol of a tolerant, diverse, and modern France.
This year has seen the emergence of discourses and powerful symbols that are highly reminiscent of 1998, and they are doubtlessly to be welcomed after
several highly turbulent years for France during which the country has faced an increased menace from terrorism.
In 1998, France’s iconic player was Zinedine Zidane. Zidane grew up on the La Castellane housing estate outside Marseille and is the son of Algerian
immigrants. This year’s French star was Kylian Mbappe, who is from Bondy (in the outer suburbs of Paris). Mbappe’s father is from Cameroon and his
mother is from Algeria.
Images of Zidane and Mbappe being projected onto the Arc de Triomphe following World Cup victories could be potentially seen as a symbol of
successful integration in a diverse and modern nation. However, they provide us both with a reminder of how France would like to see itself and, in
many ways, also what it is not.
Footballing heroes such as Zidane and Mbappe create something of an illusion, or convenient diversion from more complex realities. For example,
France has very few elected politicians from racial or ethnic minorities, or who are Muslim. In 1998, French politicians and the media were quick to
celebrate the victory of a team that was described as being black, blanc, beur (black, white and Arab). They portrayed this team as a symbol of the success
of France’s model...