This is the twelfth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
It will escape hardly a single fan of Les Bleus that July 12, 2018, will mark the twentieth anniversary of France’s 3-0 triumph over Brazil to win the World Cup at home at the Stade de France outside Paris, after which a million revelers—black, blanc, beur (black, white, Arab) alike, as the story goes—stormed the Champs-Élysées, commencing Bastille Day celebrations a couple of days early and heralding, in the eyes of the hopeful, a new multicultural dawn for the Fifth Republic. Even those who were not yet born then—a group that includes Kylian Mbappé, perhaps the most electrifying player on the current France team, who was born later that year in the Parisian suburb of Bondy—will find it hard not to think about that 1998 victory. There are vivid narrative links between that iteration of Les Bleus and this year’s squad in Russia.
In 1998, a cadre of young stars like Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, and Zinedine Zidane (who, despite his signature bald patch, was still only twenty-six) emerged at the World Cup. These new talents, with their family roots in France’s erstwhile colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, rose at the expense of some older luminaries—Eric Cantona and David Ginola—who were not selected for the team by its manager, Aimé Jacquet. Today, Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé, and Nabil Fekir are on the threshold of starring for France—if their current manager, Didier Deschamps, captain of the 1998 squad, will let them—while France’s talismanic veteran striker, Karim Benzema, sits at home. (Benzema, a son of Algerian immigrants who, as one of Europe’s leading strikers, has won four Champions League titles in five years with his club side, Real Madrid, fell out with Deschamps, whom Benzema accused of having “bowed to the pressure from a racist part of France” after an unsavory affair involving his alleged involvement in the blackmailing of a teammate.)
It is Cantona, in particular, whom I think of when I look at the current France team. That is not simply because he has been outspoken about Benzema’s absence, but also because my connection to France, Frenchness, and indeed to soccer was forged mainly through admiring Cantona from afar. For admirers of France who were not born there—my last name comes from my father, who was born in the Dominican Republic—the soccer team has proved a way to ponder a nation to which we have tenuous ties. (I once fielded a phone call from a Parisian gentleman, also a L’Official, who was conducting ancestry research and had traced the name’s possible origins to Brittany, but that’s as far as my actual ties to Gaul go.)
The spark that lit whatever latent Francophilia was dwelling within me was the sight of Cantona, playing for Manchester United against Sunderland in 1996, beating three players and then chipping over goalkeeper Lionel Pérez from the edge of the penalty box. It wasn’t so much the goal, impudent and spectacular by itself, but rather the celebration that was breathtaking: rooted to the spot from which he had deftly struck the ball, Cantona—with his collar, as ever, upturned—watched his shot nestle in the top left corner of the goal; then slowly, triumphantly, he turned 360 degrees as if to bask fully in the home crowd’s adulation at his assured magnificence. In that moment, I became a Cantona fan before I was a fan of any team or nation.
Ever since, I have been mad for the swaggering Frenchness of popped collars, for defiant Thierry Henry knee slides, for Zinedine Zidane’s ecstatic touchline sprints brandishing his kit as he might a banner. I wasn’t the only member of my generation for whom all of this suggested modes of being and of belonging, exemplified by brown and black bodies, that suggested at least the fantasy, if not always the reality, of an evolving notion of what Frenchness could be. In 1998, I watched live as France defeated Brazil, but my fondness for that team—difficult, at first, since it did not have Cantona in its ranks—was more accurately the product of countless repeated viewings of my college roommate’s ’98 World Cup highlights VHS cassette. Before the Internet made it possible to watch every game, everywhere, American soccer fans subsisted on highlight tapes like these, or weekend league wrap-up shows on seemingly fly-by-night networks that hawked the “foreignness” of sports such as rugby and Australian rules football.
I feel a related, curious sense of proximity with the current French team. Les Bleus, as has been their custom, do not lack for individual flair; there’s a reason that clichéd term “mercurial” seems almost to have been invented to be a modifier for the noun “Frenchman.” (This designation, it should be said, is often used by British commentators, who have their own set of national stereotypes and schemas at the ready.) Our top attacker Antoine Griezmann is a matinée-ready, Beckham-worshipping idol, a Masculin Féminin-era Jean-Pierre Léaud. Our leading midfielder, Paul Pogba (another son of the immigrant-rich Parisian banlieues; his parents are from Guinea), stands at the center of what he would almost surely deem the known “Pog-verse,” given his penchant for branding, but also for the way that, when on form, he really does seem to be a man apart, the star around which others revolve.
Pogba is, depending on exchange rates, either the fourth or fifth most expensive player, measured by transfer fees, in the history of soccer. Manchester United paid $116.4 million for his services—and on his day, he can make even that number seem a bargain. That he is black, Muslim, indeed mercurial, and, yes, a Frenchman again complicates what Frenchness is. Players like Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and Mbappé (born to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother) display exactly the kind of audacious elegance of play that first seduced me while watching Cantona. Their very presence in the team suggests almost limitless possibility, not simply in terms of skill but also, with apologies to Jean-Paul Sartre, of being.
Thus far though at this World Cup, that style has been little in evidence. In France’s first match, against Australia, Les Bleus were rather pedestrian. The sole moment of brilliance came in a series of one-touch passes that sent Pogba into the penalty area—and that ended, crucially, with the ball in the Aussies’ net, but only after it had been deflected there off one of their defenders. Against an inspiring Peru, France was lucky to win through an Mbappé goal, assisted by Pogba. Earlier this week, they played out the tournament’s first 0-0 draw with Denmark. It was a game that could have been an interesting encounter, but the two teams spoiled it with lackluster, risk-averse play that showed they were both content to advance to the quarterfinal round as other results went their way.
The distance I feel now from this team is one born of the disjuncture between what this side should be—adventurous, exciting, attacking—and what, to date, it has been: ponderous and predictable, preferring to knock long balls up the field toward the adept forward Olivier Giroud, or to hit speculative crosses into the penalty box to no one in particular. Pogba, Mbappé, Griezmann, and Fekir have all provided moments of penetrating thought and action, but these moments have been too few to give this French side a characteristic style. These Bleus seem to be decidedly not themselves. This crisis of identity seems imposed, rather than produced by any lack of creativity. The manager Deschamps has taken the brunt of the criticism for France’s play so far.
His own profile as a player was that of a hard-working, defensive midfielder more responsible for spoiling the opposition’s play than aiding his own side’s—his own teammate Cantona once described him dismissively as a “water-carrier.” Having apparently stamped his own dour image as a player upon this team, Deschamps seems unmoved by that criticism, unless he is simply at a loss for what else to do. His formerly blond hair turned silver, Deschamps now looks like a squat, Gallic version of the Roger Sterling character in Mad Men as he stalks the touchline.
I doubt that Cantona would describe the 2018 French team as a bunch of water-carriers, but given his penchant for caustic remarks, I can imagine his noting that their boss still is one. If Les Bleus are to mark the twentieth anniversary of their 1998 victory with a party next month, they will have to find some way to express the most expansive, spontaneous, and progressive notions of Frenchness that we know they can achieve on the pitch.
And they cannot delay: next up as their opponent in the first knockout stage is Lionel Messi’s Argentina. Allez les Bleus!