FIFA World Cup

Celebrating integration

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The jubilant team at the moment of victory. Photo: Petr David Josek/AP

Defender Benjamin Mendy mobbed by fans in Paris on returning home. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP

A picture of oneness. Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP

The French team’s unity needs to percolate down to the everyday life of the nation for it to be a guiding force in today’s fragmented world.

RACE relations are an extraordinarily complex problem that the whole world is finding difficult to deal with as issues of rehabilitating immigrants split the Western world into two almost equally divided—for and against—camps.

The colonial legacy of Europe’s elite nations makes them a hothouse for the amalgamation of cultures, as people from their former colonies —once subjugated, now persecuted—make a beeline for their shores, hoping for a better tomorrow.

France’s World Cup-winning team, which stayed above the madness that Russia 2018 threw at the 32 teams, is a celebration of integration. As many as 15 players in the 23-man squad have immediate connections to sub-Saharan and northern Africa, while one-third are practising Muslims, with many of today’s stars, including Kylian Mbappe and N’Golo Kante, having grown up in the immigrant-dominated banlieue (housing complexes) on the outskirts of France’s major cities.

“There may be players who come from different origins, but we do have the same state of mind. We all play for the same jersey, the cockerel. For our country, we give everything we have. As soon as you wear the jersey, we do everything for each other,” said Antoine Griezmann, the team’s forward, whose mother is of Portuguese origin while his father is of German and French ancestry.

France’s title triumph, much like its first win in 1998 at the Stade de France in Paris—then orchestrated by Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent—has renewed the nation’s hopes of championing and accepting the reality of a mixed-cultural, pluralistic society, something the nation has been grappling with.

This team of the united “black, blanc, beur” (black, white or Arab), which came together to script the victory, will perhaps demonstrate the successful integration of a society that has been riven recently by race riots, terror threats from radicalised Islam and a growing inwardness among citizens which led to the far right-wing, anti-immigrant Front National, headed by Marine Le Pen, reaching the final round of the 2017 presidential election, advocating the complete closure of France’s border to most refugees streaming in from the man-made and natural crisis centres of Africa.

The 1998 victory on home soil, inspired by Zidane and other players of African descent such as Thierry Henry, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Christian Karembeu, was supposed to do much the same, to gloss over all the ills and offer a solution to race relations, discrimination and other issues plaguing the republic.

“It was not about religion, the colour of your skin, we didn’t care about that, we were just together and enjoyed the moment,” Zidane said later about the team’s guiding spirit.

But there was no quick fix or any fix for that matter and Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, made a dent in the 2002 presidential race, even after questioning the “French-ness” of the 1998 “Rainbow Team”.

“The politicians thought they had solved all the problems through football. In fact, the effect lasted about as long as the fireworks,” the anti-racism campaigner Mouloud Aounit correctly said about the failed opportunity.

In 2005, the death of two teenagers in Paris during police action sparked the worst rioting in France for 40 years, and the national football establishment, too, was marred six years later when a taped conversation was leaked between the then manager Laurent Blanc, a World Cup winner in 1998, and the national technical director, Francois Blaquart, discussing the implementation of a quota that would restrict the number of black and Arab players in the French youth structure.

The foreign connection
Twenty out of the 23 players trace their origin outside of France:
Hugo Lloris, born in Nice but of Catalonian descent.
N’Golo Kante, born in Paris to Malian immigrants.
Samuel Umtiti, born in Cameroon.
Kylian Mbappe, born in Bondy, France, to an Algerian mother and a Cameroonian father.
Paul Pogba, born in Lagnay-sur-Marne, France, to Guinean parents.
His elder twin brothers play for the Guinean national team.
Steve Mandanda, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Blaise Matuidi, whose father is from Angola and mother from Congo.
Antoine Greizmann, born in France, whose father is German and mother Portuguese.
Ousmane Dembele, whose mother is French of Mauritanian and Senegalese descent and father from Mali.
Djibril Sidibe, whose parents are from Mali.
Benjamin Mendy, whose parents hail from Senegal.
Thomas Lemar, born in Guadeloupe.
Alphonse Areola, born in Paris to Filipino parents.
Presnel Kimpembe, born to a Congolese father and a Haitian mother.
Nabil Fekir, born to Algerian parents.
Adil Rami, born to Moroccan parents.
Olivier Giroud, whose grandmothers hail from Italy.
Steven Nzonzi, who is part French on his mother’s side and part Congolese on his father’s side.
Lucas Hernandez, who is of Spanish origin.Corentin Tolisso, born to Togolese parents
    In February this year, an inquiry was opened into incitement of racial hatred after the selection of a mixed-race teenager to play the folk heroine Joan of Arc during the annual festivities in Orleans. Last month there were riots in Nantes after a young Guinean immigrant died after being stopped by the police. (Star player Paul Pogba’s parents are also from Guinea.)

    While this World Cup has seen the outpouring of public emotions, with the banlieue youths joining more suburban neighbours in the celebrations at the Grands Boulevard or the Champs Elysees, there have been racial flare-ups, with burning of cars, looting of stores and clashes with the police in many parts of the country marring the festivities.

    But there is hope. The writer Abdourahman Waberi said in a column in Le Monde newspaper that “the magic of football sends stereotypes, hatred and prejudices off the pitch”.

    President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Moscow to celebrate with the team, understands the power that this team and the victory hold. (He also hosted them and their extended families at his official residence.)

    He watched the quarter-final win over Uruguay with teenage boys from the banlieue clubs and schools, sharing the grass lawns of the Elysee Palace garden with the future of France.

    Macron, like many politicians earlier, will need to derive the maximum mileage from this sporting success as recent Gallup polls show a sudden dip in his popularity, reaching an all-time low of 41 per cent compared with the 61 per cent he enjoyed when he was elected President last year.

    France is still in a state of euphoria as it continues to celebrate with its stars, drawn perhaps from every corner of France’s diverse divide. Kante, the team’s midfield enforcer, born to Malian parents in Paris, attended the official victory ceremony in the Presidential Palace with his family dressed in traditional attire, with many wearing the hijab, the use of which has been banned in public institutions in the country. This message of a broader unity of the team needs to percolate down to the everyday life of the nation and its polity. Only then can it be a true guiding force in today’s fragmented world.

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