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World Cup 2018

French squad celebrates France's ethnic diversity

France beat Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday to qualify for the World Cup final, where they will seek their second-ever championship on Sunday.
France beat Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday to qualify for the World Cup final, where they will seek their second-ever championship on Sunday. AFP/Christophe Simon

The French national football team preparing to compete for its third World Cup final on Sunday shares much of the ethnic diversity and often humble origins of the victorious 1998 squad.


Many of the players are from immigrant families and grew up in the poor suburbs outside Paris and other French cities. The 2018 French football team of 19-year-old star Kylian Mbappé iis a lot like the 1998 squad of Zinedine Zidane.

Football and migration

The multi-ethnic face of the victorious squad of twenty years ago earned it the nickname “black-blanc-beur”, a play on words referring to the country’s tricolour flag and to the sub-Saharan African, European, and Maghrebian origins of the players.

Even that was the continuation of a long association between French football and immigration.

“You have always had a large number of players coming from first generation or second generation immigrant families,” says Abdourahman Waberi, a Franco-Djiboutian writer and academic.

“In the 1950s they were mostly Polish, in the 1960s and 1970s they were Italian and Spanish, and so with post-colonial Africa, having migrants or sons of migrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa or the Maghreb was expected, and we saw it in 1998.”

World Cup 2018 Team

Twenty years later, a positive spin is once again being put on the ethnic diversity of the team, though history and reality are not so simple.

“The French national football team has such a diverse range of players from different origins that it’s a good way to say this is modern France, represented by a number of different people who are all French and deserve equal respect and treatment,” says Alan Bairner, professor of sport and social theory at Loughborough University in the UK.

“So that’s certainly the positive rhetoric around these things, but whether it makes any significant difference in the lived reality of people is another matter.”

France’s victory in 1998 came with what now appears to be a naïve optimism about the country’s relations with its immigrant and suburban populations.

The far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who complained about having black players on the team in 1998, went on to become a second-round presidential candidate in 2002, losing to Jacques Chirac.

However, in 2005, the deaths of two teenagers fleeing police in the Paris suburbs sparked weeks of riots across the country after tensions between urban youth and security forces exploed. That tension is still there.

Scapegoating France 2010 squad

In the intervening years, perceptions of the national team also appeared to suffer according to its performance, and reached a low point as players revolted during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

“Everyone was blaming the players and saying they were losing because they have bad habits from the banlieues, so they were scapegoating players like Anelka, Ribery, Benzema and so on,” says Abdourahman Waberi.

“Now we’ve had the positive flip, we are restaging what happened with Zidane in 1998, and so again we have the positive side of the story.”

As to whether Sunday’s match helps or hinders France’s ever evolving relations with its poorer suburban areas, Alan Bairner is unsure.

“I’m never sure if we can expect too much of international sporting success,” he says. “It does bring with it a certain amount of positivity and goodwill, but that will quickly dissipate if there are any incidents or developments that undermine that goodwill.”

The team however reflects the reality of France’s ethnic diversity, and it is part of a wider history of how a society reconciles with its many origins and comes to accept and accommodate differences.

“This will be a long and historical process, of another twenty years to come, but we will see the good sides of that story if we win this weekend,” Abdourahman Waberi says.

“The moment of Zidane was a particular moment, but we have had, all in all, a positive outcome, so I believe the generation of Mbappé and Umtiti will also bring more positive signs and discussions to society.”


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