The Recent History of French Football: A Turbulent Ride On and Off the Pitch

Coauthored by Jeremy Roth and David Talpalar


Recent History of the National Team

This issue of racism and immigration have unfortunately long been ingrained in French society, and the French national team has not been exempt from these affairs. Dating as far back to the 1950’s, immigrant French players have been the subject of intense criticism by both fans and administrators. For example, Raymond Kopa was the one of the stars of the French national team performing in the 1954 World Cup, but due to his parents’ polish heritage, Kopa endured multiple racial and xenophobic remarks in which he was often told to “go back to the mine” (Marks 49).  However, his success on the pitch was often viewed as a glimpse of hope for a ‘New France,’ which would be a haven for equality and would embrace France’s unique situation as a multicultural and multiethnic society. It was reported that often times Kopa had to prove himself worthy of playing on the French team that was extremely hesitant to promote the notion of racial and cultural integration. Even as a talented and respected football player, Kopa still had to prove his worth to French society due to his Polish heritage. Kopa’s dilemma elucidated the inevitable connection that politics, society, and national identity can have with the composition of football teams as a metaphor for the growing concerns over social integration. This example, dated back to the 1950’s, would serve as a crucial precursor to the trials of many non-ethnically French soccer players would face in the 1990’s through the 21st century.


Significant Tournaments and Incidents

1998: French Tribulation

The 1998 World Cup, just like this summer’s upcoming Euro Cup, took place in France. The expectations for the French team were certainly different after finishing third in the 1996 Euro Cup, which was an extremely respectable finish for the French.. As a result, the bar was set extremely high for the French team as they not only were the reigning champions of Europe, but they also were playing on their home soil every game. Much like this year’s 2016 French team, the 1998 team also had quite an ethnically diverse team. The 1998 team’s 23 players included those with roots in Algeria, Senegal, Ghana, and Martinique, just to name a few (Financial Times). This dynamic certainly created tensions throughout France questioning whether the team on the pitch correctly represented France’s identity as a whole.

However, the French team did not seem to be rattled by the scrutiny put on them by the national and international media and their fans, as they rolled through their group. They won all three of their matches during the group stage, accruing an 8 goal differential in their favor. It certainly seemed as though France was primed to make a deep run in the tournament with their stellar performance in the group stage, securing nine out of nine possible points (FIFA). Their momentum continued into the round of 16, as a future French national team coach, Laurent Blanc, scored in the 24th minute of extra time to send ‘Les Bleus’ into the quarterfinals, where they also encountered a close call (FIFA). France clashed with Italy in the quarterfinals in a scoreless match that found France prevailing in penalty kicks (FIFA). The French survived yet again in front of their home fans as they moved one step closer to playing for the World Cup trophy on their home turf.

In the semi finals, France found itself matched up against a Croatian team who had steamrolled Germany 3-0 in the quarterfinal round. After falling behind to Croatia in the 46th minute, France wasted no time in responding, as Lilian Thuram, an unlikely goal scorer hailing from Guadeloupe, struck twice, in the 47th and 69th minutes, to secure a 2-1 victory over Croatia and seal France’s spot in the 1998 World Cup Final in the iconic Stade de France (FIFA).

The 1998 World Cup final featured two of the world’s largest football powerhouses, France and Brazil. Luckily for the French, much of the pre-match media buzz did not involve the French team’s pressure to win in front of their home fans. Instead, the media heavily focused on the omission of Ronaldo from the original Brazilian starting eleven. This might have allowed France to concentrate more on the match than on the media, as they capitalized early with Zidane’s powerful header off a corner in the 27th minute. Zidane doubled his tally in the first minute of first half stoppage time with an equally powerful header off of a corner (FIFA). The French did not look back from there, as they added on a third goal in the third minute of the second half stoppage time to clinch the 1998 World Cup in front of their home fans in Paris.

The 1998 World Cup victory for France certainly brought immense jubilation and joy to the country. However, for many French citizens, it wasn’t just football that was at the forefront of this victory. Questions regarding race relations and discrimination were also an intriguing aspect of France’s World Cup success. The French team was led by the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, who weren’t necessarily perceived as the typical white Frenchman. As a result, the biggest critique of the 1998 World Cup squad was the lack of ‘Frenchness’ that the French national team represented on the pitch. These comments regarding race and ethnicity certainly created tension within France and the team before the World Cup was set to kick-off. Yet, after the incredible World Cup victory, a wave of optimism seemed to hit France. Many French citizens, of all races and ethnicities, viewed this 1998 World Cup victory as a turning point for French society as people from across various sectors of society joined together to celebrate. People ran to the streets of Paris proclaiming that the win over Brazil was victory for “all of France” and a defeat for the “enemies of immigration” (Dubois 154, 157). The outstanding performances by the ‘foreign’ French stars, especially the heroics of Thuram and Zidane in the latter stages of the tournament, seemed to win over France and sent the country into a state of pure euphoria. French citizens saw what Zidane did as the leader of the French team, and metaphorically the leader of the French people throughout the World Cup, and believed that his success on the pitch could certainly translate to changes within society and politics. One man was quoted saying, “The fact that Zidane is the leader transmits hope. It valorizes beurs and blacks. If you transposed that from football to the entire nation, imagine the energies it would liberate” (Dubois 125)! France’s World Cup success was unquestionably viewed as the opportunity for France to rebrand itself as the ‘New France’ where society resembled the national team: a place where diversity was championed rather than scoffed at. Unfortunately, these sentiments of unity have not completely transitioned into the 21st century and ethnic discrimination is still a role leading up to the 2016 European Cup.


2002: From Top of the World to Bottom of the Barrel

As Deputy Christiane Taubira, a prominent member of the French National Assembly, put it, “1998 was an illusion and a short one” (Gittings). In 2000, France once again proved the world’s elite team, this time by defeating Italy in the Euro Cup final. Many even felt that the team was more superior, more dominant, than it had been on home soil in 1998 (Bland).  But things soon unraveled, and they did so quite quickly. Dubois writes, “In the end, the victory of 2000 felt more like an aftershock of 1998 than the beginning of a new era” (Dubois 175).  

In a post September 11, 2001 friendly match between France and their former colony, Algeria, Zinedine Zidane and other players were the target of insulting, and even violent, chants from the crowd, particularly from the Algerians. The match was cut short in the 75th minute after violence from the stands spilled over onto the pitch.  Zidane would later call that “the worst day in my career” (Hussey).  Indeed, Andrew Hussey coined France’s 2000 Euro Cup triumph over Italy as “the beginning of the end.”  

Fast forward to the 2002 World Cup, and the national euphoria of France’s 1998 victory felt like it had subsided decades ago. The 2002 French squad was comprised of eight black players and as many as five were starters, including France legends Thierry Henry, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram. The New York Times even tipped the “artful” and “stylish” French as overwhelming favorites to lift the cup once again (Clarey). The legendary Dutchman Johan Cruyff said that “above all, France” would win the World Cup (Bland).  However, the squad dramatically underperformed, and a stunning, yet ironic opening loss to Senegal on center stage highlighted a tournament for France in which they were bounced from the tournament in the group stage without scoring so much as a single goal.  It was the first time ever a defending champion had failed to score a goal at the following World Cup, and the first time in 36 years that the defending champion failed to survive the Group Stage (Bland).  

And as the French national team was falling apart on the international stage, France’s own Ligue 1 was going through an episode of great turmoil. A new wave of violence broke out at numerous games in France’s top division, not only between rival fan bases, but between different races, sometimes even of the same fan base. The disaster reached a pinnacle when PSG and Marseille prepared to meet for their heated contest in 2002. Marseille chairman Pape Diouf proclaimed PSG’s home pitch to be “unsafe” for Marseille fans and advised his loyal fanbase not to attend the game. He went one step further, sending a side of reserves for the game, which played out to a 0-0 draw. As L’Equipe famously stated before the match, “We [French football] have reached the bottom of the barrel, the end of the road” (Hussey). All of France was outraged, and national papers such as L’Equipe and Le Figaro began to notice the shocking correlation between violence at French football matches and the lack of success for the French national team (Hussey).

The French followed up the disappointment of the 2002 Euro Cup with another dud performance in the 2004 Euro Cup, as they lost to the surprising champions Greece, a team with little talent but great passion and camaraderie, in the quarterfinals. This disappointment was quickly followed by several icons retiring from international football, including Thuram, Makelele, and Zidane (who would all later come out of retirement) (Hussey). These retirements surely highlighted the amount of turbulence and tension that permeated throughout the national team. While the French team seemed to have all the talent in the world at its disposal, there was clearly something keeping them from reaching their true potential.


2006: On the Brink

Much like the victorious 1998 World Cup team, the 2006 French World Cup team was once again lead by Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram, and in similar fashion, the team was highly populated with players of various ethnicities. In 2006, however, it seemed as though the presence of multiethnic players was even more accented than it was in 1998, as seventeen of twenty-three players on the roster had “family histories that connected them to colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean” (Dubois 241). Furthermore, out of the three white players who received legitimate playing time, one of them, Franck Ribéry, was a Muslim (Dubois 241). Certainly, the multiethnic French national team’s roster was not indicative of the French politics. In 2006, the French National Assembly consisted of 577 members of which 11 were minorities (Washington Post). The ratio of minorities to National Assembly members was diminutive in comparison to that of the number of minority players to the 23 man French roster.

The issue of identity and race surely loomed large over the French national team leading into the all-important 2006 World Cup, largely thanks to the skeptical, and frankly racist French media. In 2005, French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, generally criticized the French national team for being “black-black-black” instead of its typical description as “black-blanc-beur” (Dubois 242). These remarks were not forgotten leading up to and during the 2006 World Cup, which clearly casted a cloud over the French team’s spectacular run in the tournament. Even though the 2006 World Cup will forever be remembered by the French for what happened on the pitch (we will get to that later), the off the pitch storylines and controversies might have even played a bigger role for the French team and French society.

On the pitch, the French team certainly came out flat and uninspired during its matches in the group stage as they only accumulated 5 points and finished second in their group behind Switzerland. The fact that France limped into the round of 16 certainly did not go unnoticed by the French media who were quick to point fingers. Naturally, the discussion about the team’s poor performance found itself deep in discussion about race and ethnicity. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Nationalist Front leader at the time was quick to point out that the 2006 French national team wasn’t inherently French and that French society ‘[could not] recognize itself” with the players representing the French national team (ESPN). Furthermore, Le Pen was disgusted at the fact that many French players, including Zidane and Barthez, did not sing the “Marseillaise” before the match and saw it as a sign of lack of loyalty to France (Dubois 242). Unsurprisingly, Le Pen never singled out the myriad of white French players who did not participate in singing the “Marseillaise,” showing the extreme extent to which the actions of non-white players are scrutinized. Once again, the question of identity and ‘Frenchness’ played a key role in one of France’s international tournaments.

The criticism of the make up of France’s squad certainly could not have come at a more interesting time. After squeaking by the group stage, France was set to play Spain in the round of 16, who was coached by Luis Aragonés. In 2004, Aragonés famously called Thierry Henry, one of the stars of the 2006 French squad, a “black shit.” This racist outburst prompted Henry to lead the “Stand Up, Speak Up” campaign against racism in football (Dubois 243). As a result of the history between Aragonés and Henry, this match reached high levels of intensity as the French, especially the black French players, had not forgotten the 2004 incident. However, it was the Spanish side that got off to the fast start as they converted on a penalty kick early in the match to take a 1-0 lead. However, the French responded in the 40th minute as Franck Ribery put one past the Spanish goal keeper to tie the match. After 43 minutes of scoreless football, Zidane lifted a free kick that connected with Patrick Vieira’s head and powered it into the goal. Then 10 minutes later, Zidane sealed the game with France’s third goal to send Les Bleus into the quarterfinals (Dubois 243).This victory not only allowed France to send a message to Aragonés but also to the French media’s criticism of the team’s identity.

France’s quarterfinal opponent was Brazil, the 2002 World Cup Final victor. France surely entered the match as the underdogs as Brazil had not lost a match throughout the entire tournament up to that point and possessed one of the most threatening attacks in the tournament with the likes of Kaká and Ronaldo (Dubois 245). However, thanks to the staunch French defence, led by Lilian Thuram, the French were able to keep the talented Brazilians off the score sheet. France capitalized on the only chance it needed in the 57th minute as Zidane beautifully curling ball towards the feet of Thierry Henry who struck it into the back of the net to give France the 1-0 lead and victory over the defending champions to advance to the semifinals against Portugal, where Zidane put away a penalty kick to give France a 1-0 victory (Dubois 245). Once again, the French found themselves back in a World Cup final.

The 2006 World Cup Final is one that still lives in infamy for the majority of French fans for reasons both on and off the pitch. After beating the defending champions and a difficult Portuguese side, France was extremely optimistic about their chances against the Italians. However, issues of race and ethnicity still permeated through the country as the final drew closer Leading up to the final, it was obvious that the main players who led them there were not ethnically French. In fact, no white French player scored for the national team in any match leading up to the final (FIFA). The performance of the players with non-French heritage allowed many activists to call out those who, like Alain Finkeilkraut, a French philosopher deemed, the team too black and not French enough (Dubois 246). However, the unity for the French team didn’t seem to translate towards the unification of French society for all races and ethnicities. One French citizen was quoted saying, “The French football team shows the mix and the diversity of French society as a whole, but it doesn’t represent what is occurring in French society today” (Washington Post). After the win against Portugal, many fans rioted in the streets and attacked police stations in Paris to stand up against police brutality against minorities (Dubois 247). This sense of unrest illustrated that the success of the minorities on the French national team didn’t necessarily mirror France’s ability to integrate all races and ethnicities. It was a stark contrast to the unity shown in the aftermath of the 1998 success.

On the pitch, all eyes were focused on Zidane, France’s star of the tournament who happened to have been of Algerian descent. Most everyone in France believed that Zidane would surely lead France to its second World Cup Final victory in 8 years (Dubois 249). Zidane lived up to the French media’s expectations quickly and gave France the early 1-0 lead in the 7th minute after he converted a penalty kick with a gutsy panenka. However, France was only able to hold onto the lead for 12 minutes as the Italians equalized in the 19th minute off a Materazzi header on a corner kick (Dubois 249). No scoring occurred for the rest of the match as it went through extra time. However, the game by no means lacked drama. In the 109th minute, after Materazzi repeatedly tugged at Zidane’s jersey and hurled insults Zidane’s way, Zidane did the unthinkable. He turned around and gave the headbutt of a lifetime straight into Materazzi’s chest which resulted in Zidane’s sending off. France’s hopes were practically sucked dry after Zidane’s impulsive act as Italy went on to prevail in penalties 5-3 (FIFA). Instantly, Zidane’s path to becoming the next French football hero was drastically derailed after he used his head in unprecedented terms. Unsurprisingly, much of the speculation of what taunts Materazzi hurled at Zidane were centered around the issue of racism. Even though Zidane never claimed that Materazzi said any racial slurs, he still brought up the issue of race in his FIFA hearing after the World Cup had concluded. Zidane attempted to link Materazzi’s heinous insults to football’s culture that promotes the use of racial slurs during many matches (Dubois 262). He felt as though the accepted use of racial slurs enabled Materazzi to use other forms of insults as an in-game tactic to get inside Zidane’s head. For Zidane, race seemed to clearly have played a role in this incident even if it was indirect. Nonetheless, regardless of what was actually said, Zidane’s untimely short fuse certainly altered the course of the French team’s future narrative. What could have been a night of pure jubilation, quickly turned into one of shock and grief. This night completely changed the future of the French national team for the next couple of years to come.


2010: Emotions Boil Over

Looking back on it, there were many warnings that could have signaled France’s disastrous experience at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But in the moment, nobody saw what was coming. As soon as Zidane headbutted Materazzi and Italy won the subsequent shootout, French football seemed to be decaying into disarray. Only months before the 2008 European Championships, the French Football Federation (FFF) signed manager Raymond Domenech to a 2 year extension.  The team subsequently went on to gain one point in their three Euro Cup matches, finishing bottom of the table and going home shell shocked. The FFF, too embarrassed to fire Domenech so shortly after extending his contract, kept him on board despite him having many detractors, including Zidane and many of his teammates (Doyle).

The split amongst supporters regarding Domenech started immediately when he was hired, and although it was briefly alleviated by the success at the 2006 World Cup, the tension was palpable leading into the 2010 World Cup. Domenech was originally hired in 2004 ahead of Mali-born French star Jean Tigana. UK correspondent for daily newspaper Le Parisien, Juliens Laurens, boldly stated, “I’m sure it was down to Tigana’s color rather than ability” (Gittings). Still, to this day, there has never been a black manager of the French national team. On the pitch, Domenech was not helping his own cause. In 2009, France needed to qualify through a playoff match with the Republic of Ireland just to make it into the World Cup. Not only that, but the match was highly controversial, as Thierry Henry’s assist of the winning goal in extra time of the game was clearly a result of a handball infraction that the referees missed.  After squeaking through, many began to wonder why the French were struggling so much. Disappointments like 2002, 2004, and 2008 were becoming more common than the triumphs of 1998 and 2000.  

The French arrived in South Africa with as talented a squad as any other nation. Due to their star-studded squad on paper, they had very mixed expectations given their recent poor form leading up to the tournament. But the trouble began before they even set foot on the pitch. In practice the day before their first game, captain Patrice Evra had to hold back French-African winger Florent Malouda from Domenech as the two had a spat.  This led to Malouda’s benching for the opening match.  The French drew their opening game with a talented Uruguay squad (which ended up making it to the semifinals of the tournament) in a game that “was crying out for the winger’s direct running” (Bairner).

Shortly thereafter, things completely unraveled for the French in a loss to Mexico.  At halftime of a scoreless game, Domenech had a heated argument with Frenchman Nicolas Anelka, who happened to be black and was one of the team’s forwards. France’s second half performance was uninspiring to say the very least, and the Mexicans won the game easily, 2-0.  Shortly after the game, Anelka was dismissed by the French national team. Such a mid-tournament dismissal was unheard of, and the entirety of the squad was outraged.  Led by captain Patrice Evra, another French player of African descent, the French team refused to practice the following day.  

Although it was unclear in the moment exactly what was happening, many of those involved have since reflected negatively on the events that transpired.  Anelka has always had a clean reputation amongst his colleagues. What was clear, however was that there was a significant race divide, both within the squad and within the country of France itself. “People said there was a clan of black players in the French squad at the World Cup, and we then saw the true face of France,” Anelka told British reporters in December of 2010. “When the France team fails to win people start talking straight away about the players’ skin colors and religious beliefs… When times get tough we find out what people really think. They said Franck Ribery had hit Yoann Gourcuff — Ribery the Muslim, and Gourcuff the good French boy” (Gittings).  Many believe that Anelka’s dismissal was heavily swayed by the fact that he is Black.

Evra, the team captain, was also temporarily dismissed from the national team for his role in the controversy.  Although he has since been recalled (he will almost certainly be the starting left back at Euro 2016), he has not captained the team since the debacle. Esteemed author Joachim Barbier, of “Football Made in Afrique,” was scathing of the French attitude.  He said, there is a “wide gap between the people playing football and those running it, who are mostly white and over fifty years of age.”  He continues, “Back in 1998 the only person saying there was too much diversity was (Front National leader) Jean Marie Le Pen, now it seems everything that is not Christian and white is considered a threat” (Gittings).

Prior to France’s third and final match against South Africa , there was an even more clear divide amongst the team itself.  In one corner stood Evra, Henry, Ribery, and William Gallas another black Frenchman. Supported by Zidane, they were trying to convince Domenech to drop Gourcuff and Sidney Govou (who, in fairness is Black). Domenech was reportedly strongly considering taking their advice until he found out that the idea was being influenced by Zidane (Bairner).  He decided then to stick with the maligned duo. France subsequently concluded their tournament with a whimper, losing 2-1 in a must-win game to the significantly less talented host nation South Africans. The happenings in 2010 confirmed the sneaking suspicion that many already had about the state of French Football; it was in complete and utter shambles.


2011: An Unimaginable Quota

Unfortunately for France, the scandals and controversies regarding its national team did not merely subside after the conclusion of the 2010 World Cup. Still, in 2011, many French citizens were disappointed that the success of 1998 never truly transformed France into a society that ceased discriminating and promoted the ideals and values of integration. Maybe football did not have as much influence on society as many had once thought. However, tensions regarding race, ethnicity and the French national team resurfaced in 2011 due to controversial remarks made by Laurent Blanc, who had played for France during the 1998 World Cup and served as the national team’s manager from 2010-2012. French football once again found itself back in the center of the national media, and unsurprisingly, the scandal involved race. Mohamed Belkacemi secretly recorded Blanc’s conversation with Francois Blaquart, the technical director of the FFF at the time, about introducing quotas for younger players in the youth national team system purely based on their racial and ethnic backgrounds (CNN). Even though this proposal was brought about by Blaquart, much of the controversy derived from the fact that Blanc did not disagree with or protest against Blaquart’s plan. This example clearly illustrated the deep issue of discrimination that continued to persist within French society.

Possibly the biggest fallout from the quota scandal was the lack of action taken by the (FFF) after the recordings had been released to the public. How could French society, let alone its national team, embrace the notion of integration, when racism and discrimination were clearly championed at the head of the governing body of French football? Francois Blaquart absorbed much of the fallout from the controversy, as he was suspended, while Laurent Blanc remained mildly unscathed throughout the whole ordeal (Dubois). Furthermore, the French media often times portrayed Blanc as the victim of the situation, as he apparently did not possess the power to control or affect the discrimination deeply rooted within the FFF (Mediapart). That portrayal was certainly troublesome, as a manager is supposed to be the team’s undeniable leader and someone that garners everyone respect. The fact that people perceived Blanc to be too weak to defend definitely raised eyebrows with regards to the controversial ongoings of the French Federation. One possible explanation is that  discrimination was too deeply rooted within the structure of the federation for Blanc to have made any recognizable changes. Clearly, however, the underlying problem within this fiasco was not the fact that Blanc was perceived as too weak. Instead, this issue shed even greater light on the systemic racism and discrimination that ran rampant in the FFF, which somewhat reflected French society as a whole.

After these unsettling revelations and the French fiasco in the 2010 World Cup, it would be hard to characterize the French team as a unified entity. The promise of an alternative France that came with the 1998 World Cup could not have been more distant as the cloud of racism loomed large over the FFF and French society. The future of the French team was surely up in the air, as the majority of the team, and many of the most important players on the team, were of mixed backgrounds. Many members of the 1998 team who played with Blanc, like Zidane, defended him and came out saying that Blanc was surely not a racist (Dubois). However, these statements did not fully qualm the tensions and anxiety that surrounded French football. These tensions were echoed by Sebastien Bassong, a central defender for the Tottenham Hotspurs at the time with dual citizenship for both France and Cameroon. Bassong played for the French U-21 team but opted to play for Cameroon’s men’s team. He was quoted saying in 2011 that it was especially challenging to feel welcomed in France as a minority, even though he was a talented football player. He said, “I am not going to lie and say it is not more difficult in France than it is in England to find work if you have a big beard, for example. That is just a fact. In England, it is more open and that is why people come here because they know that they will get a chance, no matter how they dress or where they are from” (CNN). Bassong clearly felt that even in 2011, French society and French football had a long road ahead to become more accepting towards foreigners. The FFF and France as a whole clearly had its work cut out to create a unified team and country.


2014-Present: Ligue 1 Drama and (Un)known Rising Stars

Unfortunately for French football, racism and discrimination reared its ugly head again in November of 2014. Similar to the quota scandal in 2011 with French national team manager Laurent Blanc, this controversy also involved the remarks of a manager referring to the racially calculated creation of his team’s roster. This time, the racist rhetoric came from Willy Sagnol, the manager of Bordeaux at the time and a former French national team member who played alongside the likes of Thuram and Zidane. In an interview with Sud Ouest daily, Sagnol was quoted criticizing the intelligence of African players. He described the African players as more physical and cheaper to buy, whereas the “Nordics have a good mentality” (France 24). Sagnol’s statements created a firestorm in the French media and elicited heated responses by many current and former players. Thuram for example, Sagnol’s ex-national team teammate, denounced the remarks as “prejudice at best, and ordinary racism at worst” (Telegraph). Furthermore, Pape Diouf, the former manager of Olympique Marseille called for a unified boycott of all French leagues by African players as a message to end the repeated acts of racism within French football (Telegraph). Staying true to France’s past run-ins with racism, nothing substantial came from the proposed boycott and neither the FFF nor Bordeaux’s board of directors took any action to punish Sagnol for his comments. The only development that surfaced was Sagnol’s eventual apology for his remarks in which he blamed the fiasco on the “lack of clarity” of his statements (Telegraph). Currently, Sagnol is no longer at the helm for Bordeaux, but his exit was not related to his racist remarks. Overall, Sagnol’s controversy served as another example of discrimination that was passively allowed to make it through the cracks of French football and society without any major upheaval or structural changes within the FFF.

On the pitch, France’s level of play has seemed to elevate steadily since the 2010 World Cup, thanks to in large part by players with non-French heritage. In the 2012 Euro Cup, their first major international tournament since the 2010 fall out, France finished second in its group after beating Ukraine, tying England, and losing to Sweden. In its quarterfinal match, France lost to the eventual champions and powerhouse at the time, Spain, in a match that no one really expected them to win (UEFA). It was certainly not a triumphant tournament for Les Bleus, however, there definitely was clear sign of improvement from 2010. The 2014 World Cup was another important stepping stone for the revamped and new-look French national team. Much like its predecessors, the 2014 World Cup squad was heavily comprised of players who lacked typical French heritage. The two main figureheads of this squad were Karim Benzema, who is of Algerian descent, and the up and coming star, Paul Pogba, whose parents originate from Guinea. Thus, the trend of a multiethnic French national team continued into the 2014 World Cup. The 2014 squad amassed 7 points to win its group and advance to the round of 16 where they defeated Nigeria 2-0 thanks to goals from Pogba and an own goal that deflected off of a Nigerian player (FIFA). Unfortunately for France, their run ended in the quarterfinals, to another eventual tournament winner, Germany. However, the narrative after the loss to Germany was certainly one of promise as the French played them tough and had their chances against the world’s best.

Even though Sagnol’s November 2014 remarks dampened the optimism regarding French football’s progress, a couple of unlikely, and ironically, African-French players have surged through the ranks of French football and have made extremely strong cases to join the team in France during this summer’s Euro Cup. Two budding French stars, for example, N’Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet, have burst onto the scene in the British Premier League for their clubs Leicester City and West Ham United, respectively. Payet has become well known across Europe for his uncanny ability to score off of free kicks, as he has tallied 9 goals in the Premier League this season to complement his 9 assists (Premier League). Kante, on the other hand, is in the middle of a dream season with Leicester City, who find themselves in a great position to stunningly win the league. Kante has played an integral role this season in his central defensive midfielder position and was nominated for PFA Player of the Year in England, although his teammate, French Algerian Riyad Mahrez (who represents Algeria nationally), won the award. Even though he has 1 goal and 4 assists to his name so far this season, he is critical to Leicester’s defense, who has given up the third fewest goals in the Premier League this season with 33 (ESPN). In fact, Kante’s play has been so impressive that he was even inserted into the starting lineup against France’s most recent friendly against Russia, a game in which unsurprisingly, both Kante and Payet found the back of the net to give France a 4-2 victory (Bleacher Report). These recent surges have not only reminded the fans and the media of the talented youth within the French national team ranks, but they also reiterate the importance to include all kinds of players regardless of their heritage and ethnicity. Certainly a message that can be passed on to the rest of the French society as well.


How to cite this article: “The Recent History of French Football: A Turbulent Ride On and Off the Pitch” Written by Jeremy Roth and David Talpalar (2016), European Cup 2016 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, (accessed on (date)).