(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)
After the semi-finals of France’s last major football tournament, as the country’s whole population belatedly got behind their ethnically diverse 1998 World Cup team, Marcel Desailly felt relief and even elation – but not for the reasons that might be expected.
“I remember when the Dutch got eliminated by Brazil in the semi-final, we were happy,” the 47-year-old explains, his voice rising in excitement at the memory. “Everyone had been watching in their rooms and suddenly we were all in the corridor, discussing it. We were happy. Brazil were one of the three top teams… but the Dutch. They had a tactical set-up that could cause us problems.”
In other words, the French were far more fearful of the Netherlands than they were “the phenomenon” of the Brazilian Ronaldo. The story of how the 21-year-old sensation suffered a seizure but still played in the 1998 final has come to dominate all memories of that greatly resonant World Cup, but he never dominated the minds of that French team in the same way. Once the Dutch were out, Desailly and his team fully believed they could claim a World Cup win many thought would be a transformative moment for the country’s uncomfortable relationship with race.
The little anecdote is far from the only time over the course of a 45-minute interview that Desailly punctures perceptions, or puts a more complex and nuanced perspective on things – and not just football or Euro 2016. The former world and European champion is an easy man to talk to, so often laughing and joking, but he does not settle for easy answers. Take when the conversation naturally moves towards the context of this summer’s tournament, and whether France actually needs victory amid so many recurring racial politics and the awful terrorist attacks in Paris last November. Many footballers would take the easy option and offer a platitude to get out of the discussion. Not Desailly. As a migrant born in Ghana, he feels such issues are important to properly engage with, and a lengthy answer on French racial integration ends with a statement of real impact.
“It will bring a positive environment at that moment,” he says of a potential Euro 2016 victory, “but it will not last.”
Desailly knows this too well. France’s 1998 win didn’t change the country. Eighteen years on, the political issues that clouded that World Cup have grown even more complex. Euro 2016 comes at an even more challenging time.
There is obvious excitement and hope for a joyous international party in a perfect setting for a tournament, but every aspect of it – right down to whether the hosts can actually succeed the 1998-2000 team and end up champions – is under-layered with significant debate. Having led the team from centre-half through that golden era, Desailly is the perfect man to speak on the build-up, and notices many parallels with 1998: a highly talented team expected to end over a decade of acrimony, a difficult climate around it, and a country getting to grips with both. It makes it even odder France is not a ‘football nation’ in the way somewhere like Brazil was for 2014. That is something else that hasn’t changed. Ireland will be going to a big party where only part of the nation are interested.
“In France, we say the football is [open itals] populaire [close]: the working class and middle like it, but the wealthy class? It’s not like in Spain, Germany or Italy, where every single one loves the games. It’s changing a little bit because the wealthy class discover football through business… but it’s not that high, so we need time in France to build up the hope and the craziness around our team.”
That was precisely what happened in 1998 but, in a strange way, the relative apathy from some areas deepens the tension around the team.
“We don’t know how the French players will handle the pressure,” Desailly says of his 2016 successors. “In 1998, the training session before the first game was terrible – terrible. Everyone was under pressure. It locked us up, and was the same for the game. Luckily, we were much better than South Africa.”
France won that 3-0, with a soft group stage then allowing them to harden, and cohere. It became the classic story of how a team grows with a tournament, as Desailly explains.
“It was similar to what is happening now. The team was not fully ready, the tactical set-up strange. Everyone would have loved to have seen the French team from the beginning believing they could win but it took very long, probably from the quarter-final. The key element is getting luck. So we have South Africa first, then [Zinedine] Zidane got the red card [against Saudi Arabia], Thierry Henry takes over and it still works, Laurent Blanc scores the golden goal against Paraguay to make the difference, Italy on penalties, [Lilian] Thuram never scores and he suddenly comes from nowhere to score two against Croatia. The same for the final, Zidane – who did not appear – then bang, brings the extra. Every single player has been able to be at his best.”
It also brought out the best in the country. The team was fully embraced and individual players put forward as symbols of successful integration, with much talk of “a new France”. It didn’t take long to return to old debates.
Eric Cantona detonated one again last week when he suggested Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa may have been left out of the French squad due to political pressure because “their origins are north African”, despite the Real Madrid striker being embroiled in a blackmail scandal. The many strands to the story illustrate the complexity. Desailly defends the decision of manager Didier Deschamps, who he says is still a good friend, insisting “it pains him to leave out Benzema”.
Even aside from the rights or wrongs of that case, does it disappoint Desailly that France 98 did not erode such discussions?
“No,” he says, pausing before offering a longer answer he has evidently pondered a lot. “We know that, for a long-term positive change, it’s just not possible for football to do this. For a moment, yes. When you see someone of African origin or a North African guy taking the French flag, it’s a real moment of communion… but after?”
“France is advanced in terms of social protection – health care, workers’ rights – but the [structure] makes it very hard for people coming from outside to succeed and build up that social respect. You cannot succeed by your motivation alone. There are more barriers.
“In England, we have difficult areas but you still have a little bit of respect throughout the immigrant community. Why? Because many have succeeded and, socially, they’ve brought some kind of respect [for immigrants] into the system. We don’t have this in France and, if we have it, the level is very small.
“It’s not easy for French people to be fully positive towards immigrants because of the lack of integration, by the type of administration we have.
“That’s why immigrants did not have the opportunity to show they have talent and through talent they gain respect so it has not really changed… football cannot resolve that.”
A Euro 2016 victory can help, though?
“It brings a positive attitude, hope, energy, motivation… but it will not last.”
He also feels it’s far too simplistic to place any attempt to win the competition in the context of the November attacks. In any case, putting that expectation on players can be counter-productive. It turns into an enlightening answer on the nature of sports psychology and concentration.
“Through the perception outside, through your friends and family, the crowd, you build up your responsibility. But, as a player, as soon as you put on that responsibility, you put on pressure. When your brain is starting to go into that responsibility, we wash away. We try every time to kill it, to be able to concentrate on ourselves and get into our bubble to perform.
“Sometimes the journalists asks you questions, ‘you must feel this’. It’s different for us. In France, we had a big polemic, asking why the footballers are not singing the Marseillaise. They took the example of the rugby man. The rugby man, they grab [each other], ready to die, there eyes are there… but we are not the same. The rugby man needs to build up energy and aggression to be able to perform. We don’t need that. We have to keep calm, think about what we have to do, we cannot build up that energy.
“I could have been like the rugby guy and at the beginning of the game I would have gone crazy, tackled everyone, so I have to reject that emotional part. I have to kill it to be able to deliver my performance.
“It’s very difficult to explain.”
That is like much with France and these Euros. Desailly has successfully done his best. Now, his successors in the team just need to follow suit. France could do with a similar festival as 1998 – even the effects are not as lasting as will be pronounced.