What a World Cup Win Would Mean for France

A victory in 1998 didn’t change the nation. It did provide a fleeting moment of national communion.

French football supporters in Paris watching the World Cup.
French football supporters shout slogans as they gather in a “fan zone” in Paris on Tuesday during the 2018 Russia World Cup football match between France and Belgium in Saint Petersburg. Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Football could be coming home this weekend, but not as England imagined. If France triumphs against Croatia on Sunday, Les Bleus will bring the World Cup trophy back to its country of birth. The idea for the tournament came from the mind of a Frenchman, Jules Rimet, in 1928. “Three Lions,” the 1996 soccer-anthem-turned-meme, actually features the words “Jules Rimet still gleaming.” The song also includes a nostalgic and hopeful sentence that summarizes this year’s competition for both the English and the French: “I know that was then, but it could be again.”

Then, for England, was 1966—now 52 years and counting. For France, it was 1998—July 12, to be exact—when a team captained by current coach Didier Deschamps easily defeated titleholders Brazil 3–0 to win the World Cup for the first time, at home, in the newly inaugurated Stade de France at Saint-Denis, near Paris. It was a victory that made the popularity of the nation’s political leaders skyrocket and saw Zinédine Zidane’s image projected on the Arc de Triomphe as 1.5 million people came to the Champs-Elysées to celebrate—the biggest demonstration since the Liberation of Paris in 1944.

The 10-year anniversary of the triumph, in 2008, was celebrated rather discreetly; at the time, France was playing badly, and several players from the 1998 squad were still active with the national team. This year’s 20th anniversary, however, has provoked a frenzy of commemorations. L’Équipe, France’s daily sports newspaper, reissued its July 13, 1998, issue, which was at the time the second-highest-selling issue ever for a French newspaper. Nostalgic television documentaries flooded the airwaves, Zidane amazed the crowd once more during a tribute game, and the American disco singer Gloria Gaynor, whose “I Will Survive” became the rather unlikely anthem of the 1998 victory, was interviewed by the French press.

Many people are looking at France’s path to the 2018 final through 20-year-old glasses. The children of 1998 have become adults eager to relive the emotions of their youth: For them, 2018 might represent both a remake and a new start after years of disappointment, and give them the feeling that the torch has been passed. Nike is cleverly playing on that generational shift with the ad copy: “ ’98 was a great year for French football. Kylian was born.” (Kylian Mbappé, the French revelation of the tournament, already compared to Messi and Pelé, will be 20 in December.) This French national team has sacrificed the romanticism of losing beautifully, its trademark in the 1980s, for the collective ecstasy of winning, even if its style sometimes feels restrictive or too prudent for the neutral observer. Like the World Cup winners from 1998 team, the 2018 team builds its victories through a strong defense and midfield led by center back Raphaël Varane, defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté (maybe the best French player of the tournament), and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

With the substitute goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, Lloris is the last survivor of the “bus of shame” episode. In the summer of 2010, the French national team reached its nadir at the World Cup in South Africa when the players went on strike after striker Nicolas Anelka was sacked from the team for having insulted his coach Raymond Domenech. The name of Knysna, the town where Les Bleus were staying during the tournament, has become a shortcut in the national football psyche for shame, humiliation, and catastrophe.

That event marked the culmination of a decadelong disintegration of the fantasy birthed by the 1998 victory. The members of that 1998 team, known as “la France Black Blanc Beur”—“black white Arab France”—were hailed, to quote the laudatory words of historian Georges Vigarello, as “flag-bearers of a multicultural France” and were praised by demographer Michèle Tribalat for having “done more for integration than years of political will.”

The intervening years, naturally, have proved much more complicated. In October 2001, a friendly game between France and Algeria in Saint-Denis was called off before the final whistle after a pitch invasion by young fans carrying Algerian flags. The next year, the reigning champions scored zero goals in the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, a failure that came a few weeks after the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made the runoff of the 2002 presidential election. In 2006, the brilliant performance of Les Bleus in the World Cup in Germany (remember Zidane’s head butt in the final?) only briefly reunited a country torn apart by violent riots in the suburbs the preview autumn and plagued by a persisting melancholia. In November 2009, when France qualified for the World Cup thanks to a handball by Thierry Henry, days of media self-flagellation followed. That was a dress rehearsal for the disaster of 2010, when then–Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot publicly denounced the team as “immature bullies” or “frightened kids.” Anelka’s reply: “When things go wrong, we are seen as black immigrants again.”

“In France, the on-pitch success of the Black-Blanc-Beur era … hardly left a vibrant multi-racial harmony in its wake and taught us to be deeply wary of sporting symbolism distorting turbulent social realities,” wrote the soccer magazine the Blizzard three years ago. In 1998, Les Bleus were supposed to unite their country for the long term, in a time of robust economic growth and bipartisan power sharing in the government; in 2010, they were suspected of participating in its destruction, seen as traitors to the nation. In both cases, the jersey was tailored a bit wide for them. The 2018 team, like her predecessors, is “Black Blanc Beur,” with the roster including binationals like the Franco-Malian Kanté and the Franco-Algerian Nabil Fekir; players born in Zaire and Cameroon; players born in France to parents from the French Antilles, Maghreb, Haiti, and sub-Saharan Africa; and eight players, Mbappé chief among them, brought up in the banlieues, the often-stigmatized suburbs of Paris. But the only thing the French can and should ask of this team is to provide a fleeting and enjoyable instant of national communion, not a remedy to their fears. “Please, spare us a ‘Black-Blanc-Beur’ season 2, twenty years after the first one,” wrote novelist and soccer columnist Olivier Guez in Le Monde on Thursday, “and stop projecting your fantasies or your fears on this beautiful team on the pretext that it is multiethnic.”

Last year, the unexpected best-seller Histoire Mondiale de la France, a compendium of 146 dates that established France and its destiny among the nations, included the triumph of July 12, 1998. And yet, in his introduction, the sociologist Stéphane Beaud wrote, “In a country still hurt by the terrorist attacks of 2015-2016, the uniting motto of ‘la France black-blanc-beur’ … seems today outdated and over.”

Les Bleus played a bit part in this bruising history. On Nov. 13, 2015, while they were playing Germany at the Stade de France, two suicide bombers staged an attack nearby, killing one, that was audible during the broadcast. More terrorist rampages that night left 129 dead in Paris, at the Bataclan concert hall and at several cafés and restaurants. Jay-Z and Beyoncé have announced that they will broadcast the final against Croatia in the same Stade de France, before their concert this Sunday evening. After the victory against Belgium, people were celebrating in the same cafés as well as on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, where a terrorist attack left 86 people dead on Bastille Day in 2016, four days after France was defeated on its soil by Portugal in the final of the European Championship.

A victory for Les Bleus this weekend will allow the French to reclaim their streets for other things than mourning. The lesson of 1998 is that this national unity may very well be short-lived, however powerful it feels in the moment. Even so, France could use a national night of celebration desperately. If the 2018 team can provide that much, that will be more than enough.