Black, blanc, beur (black, white and Arab) was the theme that echoed throughout France’s victorious 1998 World Cup campaign, the first time Les Bleus lifted the trophy. To foster harmony between the various racial groups, a feeling of togetherness was promoted as 23 men, despite muted expectations, sought to take France to their long-awaited dream of becoming world champions.
The political climate was not dissimilar to what we are witnessing in present day. Aime Jacquet’s side, though, rose above the differences. With them, the nation celebrated. On July 12, 1998, the far-right, under Jean-Marie La Pen, and the disillusioned immigrant population cheered side by side.
The architect of a thumping win against Brazil in the final was a beur (Zinedine Zidane). The top-scorer and with that, one of the finds of the tournament was black (Thierry Henry). A white man captained the team. Cut to 2018, France’s only World Cup winning captain – Didier Deschamps – is on the cusp of becoming only the second in history to do the captain-coach double after Franz Beckenbauer.
The profile of the French team continues to remain the same, despite the unrest and friction in the country. But rising above the nation’s political melting pot is its football. The talent continues to come through in droves; it’s almost as if the French have a “next big thing” arriving in their ranks with each passing season.
France, though, were no strangers to embracing its multiculturalism. Their first black player, Raoul Diagne, wore the blue flannels and strutted onto the pitch as early as 1931. A few years later, Larbi Benbarek became the first player of North African origin to represent France.
New powerhouse and its quick decline
French fans had to wait till the conclusion of the Second World War before they had a formidable team to cheer for. The 1950s saw the likes of Just Fontaine, the mercurial Raymond Kopa, Jean Vincent and Co hold their own in what was already a talent-rich decade. The 1958 World Cup in Sweden helped them display that on the biggest stage, impressing with a semi-final finish. They would go on to repeat the feat two years later in the inaugural European Championships.
The 1960s and the ’70s saw a bleak period for the national side. Neither were there promising talents to boast of nor did they taste any success on the field. A series of managers came in left the exit door in a hurry. France failed to qualify for the World Cup and the European Championships on most occasions during this period. Lying almost 15 years in the dark, French football went through wholesale structural changes in its league. Football would never be the same again in France.
The amateur and professional football leagues were synchronised and the league was split into four divisions. Training centres were established at all the professional clubs. A football institute was set up. This coincided with Saint-Etienne, France’s domestically most successful team, pushing the European behemoths in the continent’s premier competitions.
Former player Michel Hidalgo, an assistant at the time, was handed over the reins in 1976, and soon enough, France roared back into relevance. Hidalgo had a talented group of players to work with. Leading the line was Michel Platini, the gifted second striker/playmaker, who would go on to become an all-time great.
France, under controversial circumstances, were defeated on penalties by West Germany in a thrilling semi-final in the 1982 World Cup. Despite falling narrowly short, the belief was instilled in the French. Platini, along with Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernández formed the formidable carré magique or the magic square.
Neither Harald Schumacher’s career-threatening tackle nor a tame extra-time collapse would not stand in the way of France in 1984; they got a first taste of international success as Platini lifted the European Championships title. Two years later, even a third-place finish felt like a disappointment as they went into Mexico 1986 as the favourites.
The 1990s – extreme highs and lows
France would go through another turbulent phase but not before the Clairefontaine national institute was established on the outskirts of Paris. Platini would soon go on to become the coach. Despite failing to help France reach the 1990 World Cup, he held on to his job. The former captain, though, did step down after a poor Euro 1992.
But the nadir of all disappointments in the history of French football came in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers. They just needed a solitary point to progress to seal qualification against Israel and Bulgaria. In stunning fashion, they went on to lose those two games, and for the second time in a row, missed out on a World Cup spot.
In came Jacquet amidst much trepidation. Playmaker Eric Cantona’s ban for attempting to kick a fan while playing for Manchester United forced the new coach to build a team around Zidane. Slowly, French gained momentum.
Expectations had hit the roof going into the 1998 World Cup on home soil. Jacquet’s unheralded young team had reached the semi-finals in 1996 European Championships. Despite not having a recognised striker and missing Zidane due to suspension for a couple of games, France became the last team till date to lift the ultimate prize in football on home soil. A highly-rated Brazil side were humbled 0-3. The baton passed to Roger Lemerre, Jacquet’s assistant but the winning momentum continued.
From being a minute away from finishing beaten finalists in the final of the European Championships in 2000, a Sylvain Wiltord equalizer and a David Trezeguet golden-goal helped the men in blue helped France complete a rare World Cup-Euro double. This helped the side climb to the top of the Fifa rankings
The topsy-turvy 2000s
France became the only defending champions to bow out of the World Cup without scoring a single goal in 2002. Zidane, Henry, Patrick Vieria, Llian Thuram and goalkeeper Fabian Barthez were at the thick of things eight years after taking their side to the top of the world. The iconic Zidane finished his career disgracefully – with a headbutt – and Italy extracted their revenge from the Euro 2000 final heartbreak, winning on penalties.
The next few years were dominated by in-fighting, dressing room politics and erratic displays not worthy enough to be among the top dogs in the world. Much of the post-Zidane era was spent in finding a successor for the three-time Ballon d’Or winner. Yoann Gourcuff and Samir Nasri flattered to deceive, and another legend, Laurent Blanc’s two-year tenure had nothing to write home about.
Deschamps, who had an impressive track record as a manager in Monaco and Marseille, took over and weathered the fractured atmosphere. France were set to lift the European Championships on home soil too in 2016 before somehow conspiring to lose against Portugal in extra-time. The core of the team, though, has remained the same. In skipper Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Rafael Varane, Olivier Giroud, and N’Golo Kante, Deschamps could rely on a solid spine.
2018 marks the 30th year since the academy was set up. The objective of Clairefontaine, which is 50 kilometres away from Paris is to train kids well into their teens and hand them over to the clubs. Nicolas Anelka, Louis Saha, William Gallas and Henry were among the first batch of stalwart graduates. Lloris, Laurent Koscielny and Pogba also spent their formative years there.
Kylian Mbappe, hailed by many as a future world star following his stellar displays at the ongoing tournament is seen as one of the golden boys of the setup. It’s not as if Clairefontaine have not erred in offering trails.
Greizmann and Kante were reportedly rejected for their slight frame. But the initiative has already inspired several European nations to start a similar programme. It was Clairefontaine that inspired England’s sprawling 330-acre St.George’s Park that was opened in 2012.
Whether France win their second World Cup on Sunday or not, their foundations from three decades ago have ensured an endless supply of class players. It’s a a luxury even Paris Saint-Germain, for all their riches, can’t avoid.