Oscar Moore looks at the legacy of Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants who, for a moment in 1998, seemed to have united a divided France.
The date was the 12th of July 1998 and the French national team had just defeated Brazil 3-0 to win the World Cup. Tens of thousands of Parisians lined the Champs-Élysées to celebrate the teams triumph. Perhaps more than any other player, the crowd came to honour one man: Zinedine Zidane. France’s mercurial central midfielder, Zidane was the son of Algerian immigrants. Following the triumph of 1998, he was to become the face of French football for a decade.
Zidane was not the only player in the side who had family from former French colonies. Thierry Henry, born in a suburb of Paris, is of Antillean heritage. Lillian Thuram, who scored crucial goals in the semi-final against Croatia, was born in Guadeloupe. Patrick Vieira, the midfield lynchpin of Arsenal’s 2003-04 ‘invincibles’, moved to France from Senegal when he was eight years old.The diversity of the French team had not escaped the notice of the French right-wing: the leader of The National Front, Jean Marie Le Pen, father of Marine le Pen, had claimed in the buildup to the tournament that the French squad was ‘artificial’. For Le Pen and the many who shared his view of French identity, this team could not represent France.
Le Pen was widely condemned for his stance on the national team. But his opinion clearly resonated. His party was emerging from the political periphery to become a major force in French politics. Le Pen had come sixth in the previous Presidential Election and he was gaining a committed and vocal following, which highlighted the racial and ethnic divisions in French society.
Nowhere better are these tensions in French society captured than in the image of Zidane, projected on the Arc de Triomphe. This son of Algerian immigrants, who had fled their home country to escape the consequences of French imperialism was, for one night, imposed onto a monument celebrating the golden age of French imperial conquest. Through his transcendental skill with a ball at his feet, Zidane had bridged France’s racial and cultural divide. For a moment, it seemed he might inaugurate a new, post-imperial chapter in France’s history. Briefly, football seemed to have defeated bigotry and prejudice.
The National Front, Jean Marie Le Pen, father of Marine le Pen, had claimed in the buildup to the tournament that the French squad was ‘artificial’. For Le Pen and the many who shared his view of French identity, this team could not represent France.
Yet, by their very nature, projections are ephemeral. Sadly, so was the apparent unity in French society. Far from being hindered by the successes of France’s supremely talented and diverse team, Le Pen and the National Front continued to grow in popularity. In 2002, Le Pen came second in the French Presidential Elections and the party was continuing to make significant gains on a local level. French racial integration and its imperial legacy continued to be contentious subjects. Nowhere better was this highlighted than by the cancellation of a game between France and Algeria in 2001 amidst violence between French and North African fans. Once the glow of the World Cup victory had faded – just as Zidane’s image had – it became painfully apparent that nothing much had changed.
The tale of Zidane and the ’98 French national team should provide at least a cautionary tale of the difficulties that football and our societies confront to become more tolerant and open. Our capacity to idolise and celebrate an individual from a different ethnic background in a sporting context is surpassed only, perhaps, by our ability to hate the group to which that person belongs.
This problem is by no means unique to France. When asked to name his favourite player, Simon Darby, former deputy chairman of the BNP, responded that it was Cyrille Regis, the West Brom Legend. Regis was one third of the famous ‘Three Degrees’, a trio of black players who defined the West Brom side of the late 70s and early 80s. Darby summed up his deeply paradoxical and troubling views when asked to square his politics with his affection for Regis, “Just because I have him as a hero doesn’t mean I want my grandchildren to be black”.
The issues that were raised during and after the 1998 World Cup have only intensified in the intervening decades. Marine Le Pen has lead the furious and often ugly resurgence of the National Front and the threat of terrorism has made the nation more sensitive than ever to issues of race and ethnicity. France is perhaps even more divided now than it was 20 years ago. Sportsmen and women are more willing than ever to use their platforms and influence to combat prejudice in the game. Lilian Thuram, another of the stars from ’98, has continuously spoken out against The National Front and La Pen, while the #takeaknee campaign, begun by former NFL quarter back Colin Kaepernick, has attracted enormous coverage (and controversy) in the United States.
Yet Zidane himself has always remained aloof from politics. While his image has been continuously used to promote the idea of French multiculturalism, the man himself, rightly or wrongly, does his best to remain apolitical. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much from him: he is, after all, just a footballer.