On France’s World Cup roster, soccer DNA outranks national origins
To the French national motto liberté, égalité, fraternité you can probably go ahead and add diversité, at least as far as its soccer team is concerned.
Because at a time of rising xenophobia and an anti-immigrant backlash on both sides of the Atlantic, France has made it to Sunday’s World Cup final against Croatia with one of the most diverse and multiethnic rosters of any national team in any sport.
Sixteen of the 23 players on the team come from families that recently immigrated to France from places like Zaire, Cameroon, Morocco, Angola, Congo or Algeria. Forward Antoine Griezmann, the team’s leading scorer, is half-German and half-Portuguese. Defender Samuel Umtiti, who scored the goal that sent France to the final, was born in Cameroon. Teenage prodigy Kylian Mbappe is part Cameroonian, part Algerian.
Even captain Hugo Lloris, the goalkeeper, traces his recent roots to Spain. And France is going to need contributions from all of them against a Croatian team whose players, seared in a bloody civil war, have refused to lose in this World Cup, winning all three of their knockout-stage games in extra time or penalty kicks.
“Football,” Yvan Gastaut, a University of Nice historian, told the Associated Press, “allows us to put immigration on stage, a question that is agitating European countries right now.
“For people who see immigration as a danger, this World Cup story won’t resolve that. But it allows us to take stock of the reality of the world, of mobility, movements, multiple identities.”
The four most successful teams in this World Cup — semifinalists England, Belgium, Croatia and France — all have multinational national teams. So even though the final will match countries whose capitals are within a two-hour flight of each other, the 32-team tournament was likely the most diverse in history.
And Gastaut, who has curated an exhibition on soccer and migration, believes the trend will continue to a point where diverse team rosters will be so common that it won’t matter and “we can focus on something else other than what are our origins.”
That may already be happening. When France won its only World Cup in 1998, on home soil, it stood out for having a team on which 11 players were either first- or second-generation immigrants.
Zinedine Zidane, although born in France, was viewed as a foreigner by much of the country because of his Algerian roots. But after the World Cup, footage of him kissing the trophy and crying while singing the French anthem transformed Zidane into both a national hero and the flag bearer of a pluralistic France.
This summer, England fielded a team that included 11 players of African and Caribbean descent, a roster that coach Gareth Southgate said “represents modern England.”
“Our nation has changed,” British historian David Olusoga wrote in the Guardian newspaper. Where soccer fandom was once “a rallying point for a xenophobic and sometimes racist strain of English nationalism,” that has “increasingly seemed out of step with contemporary reality.”
In fact European soccer programs, such as those in England and France, have long benefited from outreach into poor, primarily immigrant neighborhoods, providing access to coaches and facilities. And academic reports have proven the value of that approach, with the Associated Press citing a 2013 study that looked at 10 years’ worth of Europe’s Champions League matches and found that the more diverse teams outperformed less diverse ones.
That was hardly news in France.
“The diversity of the squad is in the image of this beautiful country that is France,” midfielder Blaise Matuidi, born in France to African parents, said at a news conference Friday. “For us, it’s superb. We are proud to represent this beautiful jersey and I think the people are also proud to have a national team like that.”
And the diversity of the French soccer program doesn’t only benefit France. Since 2002, the country has produced more World Cup players than any nation on Earth. In Russia, 50 French-born players have participated, playing not only for France but for Senegal, Morocco, Portugal, Argentina and Tunisia as well.
“Obviously we are very proud about the success of our French players,” said Didier Quillot, the chief executive for Ligue 1, France’s top-tier domestic soccer league. “We do consider France the No. 1 country in the world for training. The academies, the scouting of talent and picking them up and making them great is a clear part of our DNA.”
And nowadays that DNA includes strands from dozens of countries, particularly the country’s former colonies in Africa, which have enjoyed close soccer ties with France for more than eight decades. Raoul Diagne, born in French Guiana and of Senegalese descent, was the first black to play for Les Bleus in 1931 and seven years later played in the World Cup alongside two players from North Africa.
He later became first coach of an independent Senegal team.
Umtiti and reserve goalkeeper Steve Mandanda are the only African-born players on this year’s team, although there are French-born players whose parents come from Algeria, Angola, Congo, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.
“The French team is and has long been a remarkably diverse group,” Laurent Dubois, a professor of French history at Duke University, wrote in “Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France,” which focuses on the connection between empire and sport. “It is a global team, a kind of transcultural republic.”
On Sunday it could become a World Cup champion team as well.