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French football team score a win on the pitch and social media

Thomas Samson, AFP | The French football team arrives at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport on July 16, 2018.

France’s 2018 World Cup-winning team sang, danced, cheered -- and posted it live on social media sites, bagging both the football and popularity contests.


Striding across the locker room at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, Paul Pogba, the star midfielder of the 2018 World Cup-winning French team, was exulting with characteristic aplomb.

The French team had just been handed the golden trophy after a 4-2 win against Croatia and the Sunday night revelries were continuing in the locker room, away from the gaze of the news cameras.

But it was not exactly a private celebration – as with most football-related happenings these days.

Pogba was providing his more than 26 million Instagram followers extraordinary live access to the spontaneous celebrations, featuring some of the biggest names in French football and politics.

“We already know what time it is, Mr. President of France. We are here, celebrating,” Pogba declared in his distinctive, emphatic English, as he draped his arm around French President Emmanuel Macron’s shoulders, drawing a grinning Macron into the picture.

As hearts, stars and thumbs-up emoticons rose up from adoring fans on the Instagram live post, Pogba got a willing Macron to join in the high-jinks. It wasn’t long before the 40-year-old French president was made to “do the dab” – the head-bent, arm-outstretched dance move that has turned into an Internet meme.

Barely 24 hours later, the showman footballer was at it again. But this time, it was in Paris, inside the gilt and wood paneled interiors of the Elysée Palace, a magnificent 18th century edifice that has been the office of the French head of state since 1848.

Dressed in a suit following a short but rapturous victory parade down the Champs-Elysées Monday, the 25-year-old French footballer born to Guinean immigrant parents appeared awed by the magnificence of the presidential palace. But it wasn’t long before Pogba was hamming it up for his social media fans, getting a pliant Macron to do the dab again.

Football’s most coveted award has “come home” -- as Pogba hilariously sang after the Sunday win -- and after a two decade wait since France’s 1998 World Cup victory, the country just can’t get enough of it. This time though, the French team not only bagged the 2018 World Cup, it also won the virtual popularity contest with fans across the world.

On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, Les Bleus – as the French team is popularly called – has been sweeping the cyber stakes. While the analytics for the summer season have not yet been released, the initial assessments have been staggering: an iconic photograph of Kylian Mbappé kissing the trophy, which was posted by the wunderkind forward on his Twitter account Sunday night, has 197,000 retweets and 704,000 likes so far. A team shot posted by forward and man of the match-winner, Antoine Griezmann, received 359,000 likes and 116,000 retweets in barely 48 hours.

While a World Cup win is guaranteed to bump up the fan stats, French football legends such as Pogba and Griezmann have been social media phenomena long before the opening matches in Russia. The two players have more Twitter followers than the French president, and last month, Pogba ranked second -- next only to Germany’s Mesut Ozil -- on a “Social Player Index” drawn from 28 countries in the World Cup.

National unity, national cheer

But the popularity contest victory is not just about the number of followers, retweets and likes on social media sites. With their team spirit, cheer, occasional singing, insane dancing and good natured clowning around, the French team has captured the hearts of old fans and new, at home and abroad.

France in particular has been in desperate need of a good news fillip in recent years following a spate of terror attacks, a stubbornly high unemployment rate, the migrant crisis, discontent over Macron’s proposed reforms and the enduring popularity of the far-right National Front party.

The diverse make-up of the French team -- with more than half the players of African or Arab origins – was such an obvious symbol of national unity, that sociologists and columnists warned against tokenism or ascribing sweeping social cohesion conclusions based on a lineup of 23 gifted young men.

But it was hard to heed the pundits as Pogba and Benjamin Mendy, the French left back of Senegalese origins, led the charge Sunday of an exuberant disruption of the official post-game news conference. Team manager Didier Deschamps had to temporarily abandon proceedings as his team invaded the presser, singing “Didier Deschamps”, while dousing the World Cup-winning coach with champagne before dancing on the table. The event was duly tweeted by stunned – and drenched – international journalists gathered for a normally staid event.

The private goes public

The most stunning transformation of the 2018 World Cup however has been the window the players provided to a once private sphere.

During the 2014 World Cup for instance, French players were banned from posting messages on Facebook or Twitter. This time, the rules were simple: no blanket social media ban, but players were not allowed to bring in laptops during training or strategy sessions before a game.

The loosened rules helped the team establish a connection with followers and sometimes even stamped out rumours before they turned incendiary. Last month, for instance, Mbappé tweeted that a tackle by Adil Rami during a training session was not serious. He jokingly asked followers to “leave my friend”, referring to Rami, since the injury was not intentional.

Twenty years ago, when filmmaker Stéphane Meunier embedded with the French national team weeks before their World Cup victory to film his iconic, “Les yeux dans les Bleus” [Eyes on the Blues], the response was electric. Never before had football fans gained such behind-the-scenes access to the national team.

The documentary, aired on the French Canal+ TV station, included footage of a dejected Zinedine Zidane slumping around an empty locker room after getting a red card during the France v. South Africa game. “Les yeux dans les Bleus” set the template for a raft of candid football documentaries, including the German “Die Mannschaft” [The Team] on the 2014 national team.

On Tuesday evening, French TV station TF1 airs “Les Bleus 2018, au coeur de l’épopée russe” [The 2018 Blues at the Heart of the Russian Saga], a documentary featuring behind-the-scenes footage of the award-winning team. The documentary is bound to start up a debate on the relative merits and drawbacks of the camera as an equipment wielded by professionals versus first-person recordings in the selfie mode. Whatever the outcome of the debate, the settings will be familiar to the audience -- as will the locker high-jinks, with or without the French president.

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