Can France recapture spirit of ‘98 to lift a nation at Euro 2016?
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On Sunday, less than a week before kicking off in the curtain raiser for Euro 2016, the France squad was paid a visit by none other than François Hollande, the country’s president. He had stopped by to give them a quick pep talk.
It's possible that the rallying call from the famously uncharismatic Hollande, with his 14 per cent approval rating, may be what the team needs to propel them to European glory. But probably not. What it did show was the importance being placed on their performance this summer.
Hollande said ahead of the pep talk he was going to remind the players that “they have to play their best football but they also have to remember that they represent France”.
For the French – hosts of the tournament, tipped as one of the favourites – the pressure to deliver is well and truly on. Particularly as there may be more at stake here than mere sporting glory.
Terrorism, strikes, protests and floods: it’s been a difficult few months for France, not to mention the longer term economic and unemployment issues. It would be a gross exaggeration to suggest football could solve any of those issues. But it could at least provide a welcome distraction, perhaps even something to celebrate and momentarily lift the spirits of a nation suffering a serious case of ennui.
After all, it’s happened before and, coincidentally, it was the last time France hosted a major international tournament, the 1998 World Cup.
That victory was a triumph brought about thanks to the immense talent of one of the best international sides to ever grace the game.
But the impact of that team’s success spread far wider than the football pitch. It brought together a nation of diverse backgrounds and gave them a sense of shared identity that has too often been lacking in French society.
The team – dubbed by the press as the génération black, blanc, beur (the black-white-Arab generation) featured players with their roots in places as disparate as Algeria (Zinedine Zidane), Senegal (Patrick Viera) and Dieppe (Emmanuel Petit) all of whom playing in the same French colours.
The sense of unity the World Cup victory brought with it prompted philosopher Pascal Boniface to go as far as describing it the moment “a new Enlightenment” was born in France.
It was probably naïve to think that would last. Now, nearly two decades later, those societal divisions have resurfaced under the shadow of terrorism and now seem as wide as ever.
Already, they have spread to the team, with Karim Benzema's suggestion coach Didier Deschamps "bowed to pressure from a racist French party" in leaving him and Hatem Ben Arfa out of the squad.
For a side that, historically, is always looking for an excuse to turn on itself, forever itching for an epic bout of self sabotage, such comments must be an almost irresistible temptation.
But, so far, it seems to have had remarkably little effect on the squad. There have been no rumblings in the press, no reports of disharmony in the dressing room and, on the pitch the players look to be, in very un-French like fashion, enjoying themselves and playing as a unit.
Perhaps that comes from a new-found maturity and self-awareness among the players.
"We are a country that loves controversies, it's magnificent," Patrick Evra said of the Benzema affair recently.
"We like to talk about absolutely anything but we need to focus on what's happening on the pitch. Nothing that has been said has hurt me because these are lies that have no basis."
The decision to leave both Benzema at home following the infamous sex tape blackmail affair with Mathieu Valbuena – as well as Valbuena himself – also means that there is no implication of any side being taken in that particularly improbable scandal.
'They want to see us win'
But if there is anything to suggest that this latest France side can recapture the glories of the class of ‘98 it’s that they have the players to do so. They might not quite be at the level of the side that won World Cup glory, but with established stars like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann and emerging, fresh-faced talent like Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman, it’s probably the best and most exciting squad Les Bleues have had in some time.
Even Olivier Giroud, the man who finds himself leading the line in Benzema’s absence and who suffered a miserable dip in form in the second half of the season for Arsenal, has been banging in goals for fun for the national side.
And in Deschamps, who captained France in ‘98 and again when they won Euro 2000, they have a coach who should be able to give the team plenty of pointers on handling the weight of expectations on home soil.
The man himself is aware of the stakes.
"A big competition, especially when the country is experiencing societal problems, is a way for the French people to escape, to see a spectacle, to support the French team" he told L'Équipe in an interview published Wednesday. "They want to see us win."