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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Football rentre à la maison

Fabien Barthez, Laurent Blanc and Zinedine Zidane
pose for the cameras in 1998

If England 96 was when football came home, France 98 was when it got a radical new haircut, swaggered into the living room having not been seen for a couple of months, nailed the cat to the TV, threw all the family photos out of a top-floor window and then left straight through the wall, joyfully, ferociously, shrugging as it went. Or so your faulty memory would have you believe. Or would it?

Much has been made of the breaking down of barriers achieved by that French side – a side fundamentally different from any that had gone before and not only because one of them was willing to kiss a short bald bloke on the head before every match for luck. ‘Le Rainbow Warriors’, they’ve been called, which is apparently French for ‘The Rainbow Warriors’; a team that for the first time embodied and then united a multicultural France. Génération black, blanc, beur.

It was so remarkable that Lillian Thuram scored twice in a World Cup semi-final – his only international goals in 142 appearances. It was so remarkable that Zinedine Zidane could easily have been elected President after the final. It was so remarkable that Scotland were actually there.

There were, of course, some other reasons for history’s fondness. France 98 was a World Cup of firsts. It was the first time the tournament was beefed up to 32 teams – these days a source of frustration, but back then a real shot in the arm to minnows the world over, like Iran, or England. It was the first World Cup to feature the Golden Goal. It was the first (and last) time Michael Owen was actually interesting.

It was also France’s first World Cup for a while, qualifying automatically as hosts while failing to do so by more traditional methods in 1990 and 1994. They had an England-equalling run at Euro 96 though, beating the Dutch on penalties in the quarter final and then departing at the hands of the Czech Republic, in a parallel so eerie that Reynald Petros, who missed the first penalty of sudden death in the semi-final a la Gareth Southgate, hardly ever played top-level football ever again. Southgate, of course, never really did in the first place. Oooooh.

Returning to France in 2016 holds up such an interesting mirror on the past two decades of football. In the same way that Euro 96 was subject to a very recent (albeit excellent) rose-tinted spectacles documentary on the BBC, France 98 is held up as a similarly unifying experience for a nation that, before the tournament, was under a cloud of Jean-Marie Le Pen-inflamed racial tension.

Can a football tournament really have such an effect on France again? There are certainly numerous issues afoot, some familiar but some very much more recent developments. The old tensions certainly still abound. Eric Cantona has been stirring the pot like an enthusiastic witch, claiming that former-World-Cup-winning-captain-and-now-coach Didier Deschamps had racial motivations for leaving out Hatem ben Arfa and Karim Benzema, two of the best French players in Europe this year. But Benzema was suspended from the squad last year for an altogether more new age scandal, attempting to blackmail Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. I don’t know about you but I can’t really imagine Christophe Dugarry attempting to blackmail Bixente Lizarazu.

Anyone?

The behaviour of players has, then, been an additional but heavily reported differential over time. Let’s do a little analysis on the changing face of the professional game since 1996, when France’s 22-man squad, was, remarkably, made up of 18 players plying their trade in France, with a further four kicking the old air bag around Italy for money.

The Spain squad in 1996 was to a man employed in Spain, while England boasted only Ince and Gascoigne, playing in Italy and Scotland respectively. For Italy, only the 32-year-old Roberto Donadoni was playing on foreign soil (in the USA) and even the other tournament finalists, the Czech Republic, boasted 15 players from sides in the Czech leagues.

While this isn’t particularly instructive in terms of the likelihood of success – given the numbers of France-based players representing France had dropped to just 10 players in 1998 and 7 in the successful Euro 2000 campaign, it is indicative of the change in movement of elite footballers and lines up with the real foot-on-the-accelerator period of beefed-up tournaments and generally beefed-up wallets across the game from the turn of the century.

European football has taken the opportunity to move into the silly-money stratosphere, resulting in ever-more ludicrous behaviour. The evidence is compelling though, and it certainly came to a head for France in 2010.

Exhibit A: Nicolas Anelka’s Spongers-esque rant* at Raymond Domenech, leading to him being sent straight home. Exhibit B: five players disciplined by the French Football Federation at the same tournament, with feelings as sour as Adam Bushby’s face after he’s been asked to write a blog post. Exhibit C (still 2010): French supporters losing patience and vociferously supporting South Africa as the hosts beat France 2-1, a game made even more frustratingly futile as both teams ended up out of the tournament anyway. Exhibit D (STILL 2010 THOUGH): There’s even time for Franck Ribery to refuse to pass to Yoann Gourcuff for being ‘too posh’.

The national team has been no stranger to dressing room chaos and headlines of this nature are what separates this team from that covered in the build up to France 1998, when most of the discussion was about the make-up of the squad, rather than the actions of its individuals. So – is this level of unrest and historical infighting a bridge too far? Or is it that France just can’t really ever go into a tournament with any sense of serenity?

Hope for the same outcome as 1998 remains, and despite high-profile absentees through injury or sex-tapery, France are favourites. And if ever there was a time for unity, given other events in France that we can’t even go into here, it is now.

Moving from behind the scenes on to the pitch, this is a very good France squad indeed. A central midfield comprising Paul Pogba, N’golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi is the envy of every other side, with the possible exception of the Spanish. There are goals in this side in the form of Antoine Greizmann, Anthony Martial and Olivier Giroud. And there is that je ne sais quoi too – see Dmitri Payet’s free kicks.

And should the same outcome as 1998 be achieved? Victory could have the same redemptive power, uniting a country reeling from internal divisions and external threats, as it did 18 years ago against the backdrop of Jean-Marie Le Pen and violence in the banlieues. The star player in 1998 was an Algerian, while 2016’s star was born in Lagny-sur-Marne to Guinean parents. The time is ripe for another rainbow team to emerge from the storm.

So perhaps the tournament has come at the ideal time for the French. This is a diverse squad, perhaps less-than-completely-united under Deschamps but more than completely capable of competing with Europe’s other leading lights. We’ve long held up football’s capacity for redemption (a result or otherwise of its short memory, depending on your level of cynicism) on these pages, and there’s nothing like an intoxicating summer of football to get the camaraderie flowing through a squad, and by extension, a country. It’ll be fascinating to see how high the barriers have to be built before this romanticism is unable to overcome them.

*Some say he’d also had four pints, which is generally enough to get us going, but that’s not been verified as yet

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