France's second World Cup triumph a win for African immigrants everywhere
Moscow, Russia - Luzhniki Stadium: With a 4-2 win on Sunday, July 15th, France stepped over Croatia onto the podium for their 2nd ever World Cup title. The historical win marks their first major tournament win since 2000 when they won the European Championship, just two years after their legendary and inaugural World Cup win in 1998. And just like in ’98, France’s current batch of champions features a generous amount of immigrants. That first wave of the Golden Age graced the world with multinational French talents such as Marcel Desailly, Patrick Viera, and even Zinedine Zidane. For France, ’98 marked an unveiling of sorts of a talent pool so rich that for the tournament, then coach Aime Jacquet only selected three Parisians in his World Cup roster. The previous ’84 Euro-winning team had just one. The youth of Africa had created a new formula for the French.
Where was this infamous talent pool located? You’d have to go back to the late 1940s-50s when France was rebuilding the country after the destruction of WWII. By 1965, almost 3 million of France’s population were immigrants. By 1975, after a second wave of immigrants came to France from West Africa and the Caribbean, due to an economic shift and a country-wide labour shortage, 35% of France’s immigrants were African. These immigrants would often relocate on the outskirts of major cities such as Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, and in recent decades, these cities have become home to the children and grandchildren of these African immigrants. These cities are separated from Paris only by a single highway that circles around the city like a cage.
Timing, they say, is everything, but rarely a coincidence. During this same period of time, France were experiencing by far their least successful era in international football. Through 1960-1975, their men’s national team failed to qualify for two separate World Cup tournaments and a European Championship. In 1975, with the “How the f!@# do we get better?!” question creating pressure amidst the FFF (French Football Federation), then president Fernand Sastre created Clairefontaine, an academy for the country’s youth elite. At the time, Clairefontaine was regarded as arguably the finest footballing academy on the globe, as it produced some of the most gifted French players of the budding French Golden Age like Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, and William Gallas. The rest is, what you call, history.
Today, France's championship-winning World Cup team featured 15 players African roots, including the young man of the hour Kylian Mbappe, who was born to a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother. Defender Samuel Umtiti was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, before emigrating with his family when he was two years old. Fellow defenseman Adil Rami, was born in Corsica to Moroccan parents and is the only player in the squad with North African descent. Midfield general N’Golo Kanté is also of Malian heritage. It has been wonderful for the world to get to see the entire team of heroes as well as their African sports icons embraced for bringing honor to the nation they have chosen to represent.
I hope that this national pride continues. It was not too long ago, when in 2011, the French Football Federation and then France manager, Laurent Blanc, faced accusations that they had secretly discussed limiting the number of places for players from ethnic minorities at their headquarters in Clairefontaine that would have seen players as young as 12 passed over in order to make room for their white counterparts.” In 2000, a poll indicated that around 36 percent of the French population thought that there were “too many players of foreign origin in the French football team.” Though the newfound celebration of their multi-racial national team is a positive, it is even more essential that this respect extends to the non-sports playing immigrants in the country who are still dealing with racial and ethnic discriminations based on the color of their skin or the countries they may be migrating from.
A fan of the game myself, it has been rather enjoyable to watch the world celebrate the Boys from the Banlieue. Like you, I have read the articles, Facebook posts, and Twitter comments celebrating the French team as the last standing African team in the tournament. As a Cameroonian, these statements have been relatable. A lot of us share a sense of pride when we see moments of African excellence such as this. And while I congratulate France for adding a second World Cup star to their jersey, this is not a hate piece against the country, but rather a challenge to the African football federations. While even the harshest critic would admit that luck was not on the side of the five African nations representing the continent in the 2018 World Cup, the reality has still been a bitter pill to swallow for most. Out of these countries, none made it past the group stage of the tournament. This marks the first time since 1982 where an African team hasn't progressed to the Round of 16 in World Cup competition. AFCON 2019 will represent a chance for the continent to celebrate its culture, and the teams, especially the ones who missed out on Russia, an opportunity at redemption. The question that will be looming over many heads at CAF and the Ghana’s, Nigeria’s, and Cameroon’s of the world is how can we not only retain but continue to improve the youth talent pool in our African countries?