French team's rainbow connection

07 July 2006 |

Can the rise again of Zinedine Zidane and his multicultural French team illuminate a fresh path towards unity for their racially divided nation? Michael Lynch reports from Berlin.

BEFORE many of the big matches in this World Cup, the two captains of the competing teams have been called on to read out FIFAprepared statements condemning racism and highlighting the potential of soccer to ease racial, ethnic and cultural tensions in countries whose populations resemble a patchwork quilt of nationalities.

Nowhere, perhaps, might those statements — contrived as some might claim them to be — be heard with more clarity than in a French dressing-room that has endured criticism not just about its age and its halting start to the competition but, fundamentally, about its racial composition.

Eight years ago, when the peerless Zinedine Zidane led Les Bleus to a historic World Cup triumph on home soil, the national team was held up as a wonderful mirror for a harmonious and multicultural French society.

There was Zidane, the maestro at the heart of the team, the midfi eld genius of Algerian extraction who grew up in the socially deprived La Castellane district of Marseilles, the man whose two goals in the final set up the 3-0 win over Brazil.

There was Patrick Vieira, born in Senegal, but now a mainstay of Le Tricoleur; Lilian Thuram, from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe; Marcel Desailly, whose family origins were in Ghana; midfi elder Youri Djorkaeff, of Armenian heritage; and Basque defender Bixante Lizarazu.

There were the black strikers Thierry Henry and the Argentinianborn David Trezeguet, as well as striker Sylvain Wiltord.

But the main man, then as now, was Zidane, whose chiselled features, calm demeanour, balding crown (which gave him the appearance of a monk) and sublime ability made him the poster boy for a united France.

"L’Effet Zidane" was shorthand for this new-found sense of inclusion that was engendered by what was, truly, the rainbow team.

Well, it was for nearly everyone except the controversial right-wing French nationalist politician Jean- Marie Le Pen, who complained that there were too many black men in the team and that it was not representative of the France that should be portrayed on the world stage.

Le Pen was howled down then. The party mood — encapsulated after that fantastic triumph when black and white and brown, young and old, newcomer and longestablished resident, poured onto the Champs Elysees for an all-night celebration — was still strong.

Such was the emotion that a young Henry was told by an elderly woman that she had not felt such elation since the time of liberation after World War II.

But much has happened in French society in the eight years since the evening when a nation came together.

Economic performance has slumped, unemployment has risen and racial and religious tensions have intensifi ed, leading to a fracturing in social cohesion.

While France remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world (in 2004, its per capita GDP was $40,000) and it is a key member of the powerful G8 group of industrialised nations, the old problems, masked briefl y by the success of the French team in the 1998 World Cup and the subsequent European championship success of 2000, have resurfaced.

Unemployment is about 10 per cent and almost one in four youths does not have a job. Images of blazing cars and pitched battles with police and authorities were beamed around the world late last year as the tension simmered, and then boiled, among the alienated youth of Paris’ outer suburbs. The rioting was attributed to the failure of the integration policies hailed as a success in 1998.

Just before France took on Brazil in the quarter-final match in Frankfurt, Le Pen popped up again, claiming once more that France "would not recognise itself in this team".

Les Bleus responded in the best possible fashion, by smashing the South Americans in a superb team effort orchestrated by a virtuoso performance from Zidane, and continued the dream with a semi- fi nal victory over Portugal that has set up the much-anticipated fi nal with Italy.

The winning goal came from Zidane, who calmly slotted home the penalty that gave France a 1-0 win.

That Zidane was once more at the heart of the affair brings a wonderful symmetry to a World Cup campaign that social commentators and politicians who hope that soccer can once more unite the country will be quick to seize on.

He was tempted back into the national colours last year by coach Raymond Domenech, who feared that Les Bleus might not qualify without his aid.

Zidane was tired. He was old (he is now 34), and he was winding down, preparing for a life in which he would no longer be known as a "Galactico" of Real Madrid, nor as the talisman of French soccer.

But Domenech — who once aspired to be an actor — used his powers of persuasion to woo him back. Not only did Zidane return to the colours, so, too, did two other key members of France's rainbow squad, defender Thuram and Chelsea midfielder Claude Makelele, the trio making a pact to put all on the line for their country one last time.

It was Thuram himself, France's most capped player with 120 games for Les Bleus, who took it upon himself to stare down Le Pen, and address the question of social integration, the role of black players in the national team and the impact Les Bleus can have on French society.

At a news conference where, in a huge departure from tradition, the French media applauded a player, the Juventus defender pointed out that more than two-thirds of France's 23 World Cup players were non-white.

"What can I say?" he told the website of French sports daily L'Equipe.

"Obviously, Jean-Marie Le Pen is unaware there are black Frenchmen, like there are blond ones and brown ones. He has for a long time been a candidate to be French president and he does not know French history, that's the most serious and surprising thing.

"It's almost as if someone looked at the American basketball team and said: 'There are blacks in the team, what's going on?' Unless you can prove otherwise, all you need is French people on the pitch.

"When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. It doesn't matter if we're black or not because we're French. I've just got one thing to say to Jean-Marie Le Pen. The French team are all very, very proud to be French. So vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants."

Zidane has preferred to let his performances do the talking, reasoning that the eloquence of his feet will communicate more than anything he can say.

Whether his genius will be able to ease, if only temporarily, the issues confronting his homeland is beside the point on this occasion as the former world player of the year, the man who glides effortlessly through a game finding space and time on a pitch where so little of either commodity exists, prepares for his final game.

Rarely do heroes get the chance to exit centre stage on their own terms.

Diego Maradona was chased out of the 1994 World Cup on a drugs bust. Dutch genius Johan Cruyff refused to play in Argentina in 1978, citing political opposition to the regime in Buenos Aires. George Best, who never even got to play in a World Cup, saw his career, and then his life, disintegrate in an alcoholic haze.

But Zidane will be different, as he takes on the role of star player in a drama few would have had the nerve to script even a month ago when France began its World Cup campaign with a listless scoreless draw against Switzerland.

It was a game in which he looked old, out of sorts and not on the same wavelength as his teammates, although the occasional glimpses Zidane's magic were there before he was substituted after he had been given a yellow card.

France was equally unimpressive next time out, drawing 1-1 with South Korea, Zidane again receiving a card that kept him out of the last group game, a 2-0 win over Togo.

It was in the first knockout game that Zidane, and Les Bleus truly came to life, dispatching the highly-fancied Spaniards 3-1 after coming from behind.

Important though his contribution was there, it was a prelude to the commanding performance against Ronaldinho, Cafu and company when France shocked Brazil. Although more muted against the Portuguese, Zidane was the go-to man when the penalty was awarded, and he will relish the chance to go out on the biggest stage of all.

"Now that we are here, after all the effort we have made, we will try and bring it (the World Cup) home," Zidane said after the semi-final.

"We don't want to stop now. This is so beautiful — we want to carry it on. It won't be easy, it will be hard, but we have the weapons to do it and we have the will to do it."

No one can gainsay him on either count. His fellow veterans (Thuram, Vieira, Makelele, Wiltord) all have lifted, and with the exciting Franck Ribery running at the Italian defence, trying to create chances for the predatory Henry, France will present the canny Italians with the sort of opposition — a mixture of proven success, experience and technical ability — they have rarely faced so far in this competition.

There is no doubt that the players will be galvanised to send off their leader in fairytale fashion, not the least because they hold him in such high esteem for his ability.

His former teammate Christophe Dugarry, a member of the 1998 team, said this week: "Zizou plays football in another dimension. For the rest of us, it can only be fantasy."

Henry — often said to have an ambivalent on-pitch rapport with Zidane — told Paris-based academic Andrew Hussey in an Observer article earlier this year that Zidane can simply "do things with his feet that some people can't even do with their hands". "Sometimes when he plays the ball, it seems like he is dancing."

The last word, perhaps, should belong to the vanquished. Carlos Alberto Parreira presided over a Brazilian side tipped to take home its sixth World Cup, until it was undone by Zidane.

"Zidane made the difference, even more than in the 1998 World Cup final," he said.

"He showed a lot of personality and creativity.This was probably his best performance in the last eight years."

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