France, the World Cup’s last standing ‘African’ team
12 of the 23 French players boast African ancestry from nine nations across the continent
Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old forward of Cameroonian and Algerian descent, slid and then posed, with his brown arms crossed, before being swarmed by his French teammates. He had just sliced through the Argentine defense for his second goal in the World Cup matchup of two of world football’s giants, officially putting the world on notice about his skyrocketing star and living up to the No. 10 he wore on his back. The boy from the Bondy banlieue, a ghetto in Greater Paris where young black and brown boys kick soccer balls on overpoliced concrete streets between overcrowded tenement buildings, had arrived.
Les Bleus’ statement win, led by the brilliance of the young Mbappe, brought back memories of another Algerian Frenchman and product of a gritty French ghetto who wore the coveted 10, Zinedine Zidane, the talisman of the 1998 team that won France’s only World Cup title. Yet, the comparisons between the historic 1998 and the 2018 sides, vying to hoist France’s second golden trophy, only begin with the shared numbers and ancestry of Zidane and Mbappe. A review of this team’s roster, perhaps the most talented since the 1998 side, reveals that it is as much African as it is French. Further, like the only team that gave France its first and only World Cup championship, the team’s distinct Africanness is again inciting questions about assimilation in France, during a moment when racist populism is gaining momentum.
This World Cup marked the first time since 1982 that no African team advanced to the knockout stages of the tournament. Nigeria was eliminated in the final minutes of group play by a desperate and embattled Argentina; the injury and surrounding controversy around Mohamed Salah torpedoed hope for Egypt before the second kickoff against host Russia; Morocco drew a fatal hand by being placed in group play with Spain and Portugal; Tunisia played admirably but could not match talent with Belgium and England; and Senegal, the continent’s most impressive side in Russia, was eliminated on account of “fair play.” Five teams in and, after three games each in group play, five teams out. Leaving African fans on the continent and in the global diaspora without a home team to cheer on during the knockout stages.
Until, that is, one looks closer at who is donning the blue-and-black kits with the French Football Federation insignia on their chests and learns that France, on account of personnel, is indeed the last African team standing in the 2018 World Cup. Beyond the teenage phenom Mbappe, France boasts a milieu of players of African ancestry who could very well make up a Pan-African all-star team. Twelve of the 23 French players called up to represent France in Russia boast African ancestry rooted in nine nations across the continent.
Samuel Umtiti and Adil Rami are two of the rocks of France’s solid defense, hailing from Cameroon and Morocco, respectively. Senegal’s Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Presnel Kimpembe, join Umtiti and Rami defending in front of Hugo Lloris, who is backed up by French-Congolese goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.
At the center of it all, on the pitch and off of it, is the dabbing midfield dynamo Paul Pogba, whose parents hail from Guinea. Pogba is flanked by national team fixture Blaise Matuidi, who is originally of Angolan and Congolese descent. N’Golo Kante, who rounds out France’s African midfield, is of Malian extraction. Africa is also richly represented on France’s attack, with the electric Ousmane Dembélé having roots in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, and Lyon’s goal-scoring machine Nabil Fekir hailing from France’s rich Algerian diaspora. Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid man who plays alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and is heralded as one of the world’s best strikers, is also of Algerian origin and claims that he was left off the team on account of France’s coach, Didier Deschamps, “bowing down to racists.”
It was Benzema, after all, who before the 2014 World Cup stated that, “If I score, I’m French … if I don’t, I’m an Arab,” at once exposing the intimate link between France’s volatile racial politics and soccer, the national sport, which is both sport and societal mirror. Soccer was a most optimistic mirror in 1998, when France won the World Cup and Zidane’s face was illuminated on Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, one of the country’s national symbols. However, the promise of 1998 took a turn toward the ugly truth 12 years after “the French team that won the World Cup was widely praised for its multiethnic nature — black, white and Arab, and seen as a symbol of a more diverse nation.”
During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, several of the side’s African players, most notably team captain Patrice Evra and Nicolas Anelka (who was kicked off the team), were accused of misrepresenting the nation by not singing along to the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, before the matches. Pundits and politicians, most notably those on the right, viewed the “scandal” in South Africa as emblematic of Arab and African immigrants — particularly those living in the same ghettos that produced the likes of Zidane, Mbappe and scores of other national team heroes — refusing to assimilate and choosing their “ethnic” identities over their French ones. To be viewed as properly French, one cannot also be Algerian, Senegalese, Cameroonian, African, Amazigh or Arab. This ultimatum of identity is at the heart of French political discourse, imposed on its brown and black citizens in its ghettos and on soccer’s highest stage, set aside only momentarily if the African players deliver on the pitch.
In France today, where the ominous trilogy of xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia reveal that the national slogan of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” only extends so far for the country’s black and brown populations, soccer is far more than sport. Particularly during the World Cup, when a divided nation in search of an elusive optimism puts its hope in the hands of players named Mbappe, Dembele, Fakir, Rami, Umtiti, who wear French Bleu but also play for Africa, and the legions of African soccer fans who share their continental roots. Whether nativists, racists and the Marine Le Pens in France like it or not, much of the world views France as the last African team standing in Russia, demonstrating brown and black excellence in all of its glory.