On Sunday, 15 July—the day after France’s 14 July national day—I was sitting in a London pub with French friends, watching the France-Croatia World Cup final. A game we expected to be close, but then, at the end of the game it hit me; France are world champions! I was so overjoyed, it took a while to sink in. It would have been great to join the celebrations on the Champs-Elysees, but I was in London. Still, I was surrounded by a whole French community, and the party was about to start.
When France won the World Cup for the first time, in 1998, I was an elven-year-old schoolboy on holiday in the South of France. I don’t remember the celebrations on the Champs-Elysees or elsewhere in France, but I do remember the names of the star players from back then. Current manager Didier Deschamps captained the winning side, but there’s one name remember in particular: Zinedine Zidane.
A rainbow team
On 12 July 1998, Zidane entered World Cup history by scoring twice, helping France to their first-ever win. That World Cup secured him a place at a national level, especially in terms of popularity. The night of the final, his face was projected on the Arc de Triomphe and crowds chanted “Zizou President!”
Born in Marseille to Algerian parents, he wore the number 10 shirt for France. The night of the 1998 win, over a million people gathered on the Champs-Elysees and Zizou received the Legion of Honor (highest French order of merit for military and civil merits). That victory, by a multi-cultural French team, sparked a moment of national unity.
Could 2018 be 1998 revisited?
As I followed this year’s World Cup, I was sad to see that none of the African teams who qualified (Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco) made it past the group stage.
For me, the victory of “Les Bleus” was a win for Africa as well as for France. Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kante, Samuel Umtiti, Kylian Mbappe … all of African origin. The French have them to thank.
Kylian Mbappe wasn’t even born when France won the World Cup in 1998.
This year, at the age of 19, the striker of Cameroonian/Algerian origin emerged as France’s saviour, especially against Argentina. Once again, the guy in the number 10 shirt is a national hero.
He grew up in Bondy, a suburb of Paris often forgotten by the authorities. Young immigrants in the suburbs of France’s cities often suffer police violence. Mbappe reminds us of Zidane, and even wears the same number.
And then of course we have France’s solid defence: Samuel Umtiti from Cameroon, Benjamin Mendy from Senegal and Djibril Sidibe from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Then there’s the superstar Paul Pogba, whose parents came from Guinea and who scored one of the goals that secured France’s victory. The engine in the middle, N’Golo Kante, who has had an incredible World Cup, is of Malian origin. Nabil Fekir (originally from Algeria) rounds off the large African contingent in France’s squad.
France can be proud of this new generation of African players.
Sixteen of France’s 23-man squad come from families that recently immigrated to France, most of them from Africa. Seven of them are Muslims. All of which shows the richness and the diversity of a team that has made its country proud for the second time in 20 years.
As an Englishman who spent 11 years living in Paris, I’m delighted for the French side. Congratulations!
But we should also recognise the impressive performance of Croatia, who had an excellent competition, playing with passion and competitiveness. The Croats eliminated Russia at home and beat England in the semi-finals, and their country and their president should be proud. What’s more, the team behaved like true sportsmen right until the end.
On Monday 16 July, Les Bleus will arrive home to a hero’s welcome. There will be a parade on the Champs-Elysees and France’s First Football Fan Emmanuel Macron will receive them at the Elysee Palace.
France 98 revisited? For me, definitely. I’m hoping to see the Legion of Honor awarded to Mbappe or Pogba, or to Didier Deschamps, who played in the 1998 final and collected his second trophy on 15 July 2018.
Merci la France!
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