Why I Love the French National Team

I have been an avid follower of the Euro Cup since 1992, when a start-up Denmark beat reigning World Cup champs Germany. I was an apathetic exchange student in Germany at the time, and was more than happy to cheer on ? along with my Nirvana-loving host brother ? the defeat of a powerhouse. My love for underdogs goes way back.

Now it’s time for Euro Cup again, and I’m ready to watch. Only thing is that you can’t watch any of the matches in the U.S. unless you get pay-per-view. I clicked on ESPN2 this morning and got to watch the wife of NRA President Wayne LaPierre hunt down and kill big game in Africa. Why can’t I watch something more civilized like the second biggest soccer tournament in the world??

Over on main ESPN I checked out the early edition of Sports Center for the Euro Cup scores. France beat England yesterday 2 to 1. No surprise there. France has been on the mark or close to it since its World Cup win in 1998, thanks to a roster of athletic stars, such as Zinedine Zidane and Fabien Barthez.

Now leading in Group B and heavily favored to win it all, France can by no means be considered an underdog. So why do I like Les Bleus? One word: diversity.

The point has been made a thousand times before. Look at France’s line-up and you’ll see a group of men that reflects the changing face of Europe. The quartet of Marcel Desailly, Patrick Vieira, Jean-Alain Boumsong, and Claude Makelele were born in Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, and Zaire, respectively. Defender Bixente Lizarazu is Basque (not yet a country, but an odd distinction, nonetheless). And, France’s ace-in-the-hole Zidane, lovingly called Zizou by his devoted fans, was born in Marseilles, though is Algerian by heritage. In all, 16 out of 23 players on France’s Euro Cup 2004 roster are of African, Middle-Eastern, Caribbean, or otherwise non-France descent.

Many of France’s players come, of course, by way of colonization, a cloud that still looms large over France’s recent past. I haven’t the scholarly chops to comment on France’s colonial history. But, one thing I know is that former French colonies were, in effect, considered bureaus of France; their people, considered French. At the very least, I understand that France grants automatic citizenship to children of foreign-born parents when they turn 18.

The French National Team is the embodiment of that melting pot ideal that we in America like to tout. To be sure, immigration has been surging throughout Europe over the past decade, especially in Italy and Germany. But I have yet to see, for example, any players of Ethiopian or Turkish descent playing for those national squads. There are few, if any, Cem Ozdemirs playing alongside Oliver Kahn and Michael Ballack. England’s team looks like England, with many black and bronze bodies on the field, but a handful of that country’s diehard fans continually ruin any chances at cross-ethnic soccer celebrations.

I’m not sure what sort of junior system France has in place to ensure that French-African and French-Arab youngsters get the same opportunities that French nationals do. But it has worked to marvelous effect. It seems that any French kid, whether from the périphérique or the campagne, can, with a lot of determination and skill, play for France. It’s sort of like the American Dream – only, it’s la rève française.

3 comments

  1. Daniel says:

    Hi, good post!

    Poor England, so close, so close – but we are always able to leap to failure at the last minute.

    People always say that English football hooligans are a tiny minority, I’ve never really believed this. Suspect there are a few deliberate leaders, but thousands of everyday idiots willing to go along with a fight if it starts.

    Daniel

  2. Chris says:

    While far from an expert in such matters, it’s not all roses for the French. They have a habit of poaching the best players from the African countries you mentioned and granting them French citizenship based solely on their footballing prowess rather than any family heritage. While I’m sure the French African players are grateful for the opportunities they have been given (and the lifestyle they now lead), and undoubtedly the spectacle of world football is better off for it, it doesn’t do much to develop the local leagues and national teams of these African nations who lose real talent to a country with more resources.

  3. Melanie says:

    Touche, Chris. I suppose there have also been problems (on the club level) in countries like Italy and Spain, where club owners are illegally obtaining passports for Argentine and Brazilian footballers with dubious Italian/Spanish heritage and importing their skills.

    Though I still think that France, in general, accepts a broader, more secular definition of nationality (i.e., you can be black and French, Muslim and French) than other European countries do.

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