France holding out for a Euro 2016 hero to help heal divisions

Rubbish is piling up high in the streets of Paris and trains are running haphazardly because of strikes. Workers' rights protests are a feature of plazas where fans are meant to be frolicking in fountains.

France will hope Paul Pogba can leave his mark on the finals. Picture: Daniel Kopatsch/Getty
France will hope Paul Pogba can leave his mark on the finals. Picture: Daniel Kopatsch/Getty

It has not been the most auspicious of countdowns as France prepare to get the newly designed “Beau Jeu” ball rolling at the Stade de France tonight against Romania.

The French government has extended a state of emergency order to cover the duration of the Euro 2016 tournament. It has also launched a new smartphone app to alert users if a terrorist strike has occurred near them.

Stay safe is the message being repeated rather more often than the tournament’s official slogan, which is, apparently, “Le Rendez-Vouz”.

Terror is the regrettable context in which Euro 2016 is set. Not that the outlook ahead of France 98 seemed particularly positive either – at least not in France itself. There was a background of grumbling and, in the capital at least, marked indifference.

The coolness many Parisiens felt towards the idea of a World Cup being held in their backyard was one reason why France opted to begin their ultimately successful World Cup campaign in Marseille, where their then star player Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian parents, grew up. Scotland were given the honour of kicking-off the actual tournament at the Stade de France, against holders Brazil.

But tonight there will be plenty of symbolism drawn from France playing in the heart of the country and on a pitch that as recently as November became a sanctuary for thousands of frightened spectators. Didier Deschamps’ side will get what is hoped can be a healing party started v Romania. They will also want to believe the slow-burning magic of France 98 can occur again.

Indeed, France tend to win competitions played in their country, going back to “les pionniers” of 1984. It was then the Michel Platini it was acceptable to like led a stylish team to popular victory.

Only twice have France failed to make the most of home advantage – when they let 
Italy take the Jules Rimet trophy home with them in 1938 and then, in 1960, when they hosted the final stages of the nascent European Nations’ Cup tournament. France finished fourth out of four. But since then, it’s been two out of two.

So it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise ever if France emerged triumphant again next month. It wouldn’t be the greatest shock if there was a sea of 
tricolours on the Champs Elysees on 10 July, all attendant fears and worries having eased for a while.

But when the government feels it necessary, understandably, to extend a period of emergency, then there has to be some tension in the air. It has even surfaced within the French team – though not, mercifully for them, within the actual team camp, as has happened in the past. They got their seemingly inevitable in-house controversy out of the way a lot earlier, when star striker Karim Benzema was last year accused of trying to blackmail team-mate Matius Valbuena over a sex tape. 
Neither has been included in Deschamps’ squad.

Benzema’s absence is because, with a police investigation ongoing, he has been suspended by the French Football Federation. But Eric Cantona bluntly blamed racism on Deschamps’ part for the sidelining of Benzema, pictured, who comes from an Algerian Muslim family. Valbuena’s exclusion is because his performances with Lyon have understandably suffered this season.

The absence of Benzema is causing greater anguish, particularly in Lyon, where the Real Madrid striker was brought up in the gritty suburbs. “With him we have a 80 per cent chance, without him, 50 per cent,” said taxi driver Anoir Faouzi, himself of North African descent, yesterday.

We were speaking in Lyon, which also perhaps helps explain his loyalty to Benzema. But he added: “He made a mistake yes. In France, when you are Arabic or Muslim, you make one little mistake and it is highlighted more than the ten good things you do. Benzema, and I know his brother, gives money to charities and helps the poor people here.”

But Marcel Desailly, one of the stars of the ‘rainbow’ team that sent such positive vibes coursing through the country in 1998, believes Benzema has only himself to blame. The now infamous satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has also waded into the row, using twisted humour to illustrate a point. The current issue has a cartoon of a coffin-shaped figure wearing boxing gloves: “Deschamps, Raciste!” it accuses – because he hasn’t picked Muhammad Ali for his squad either.

An editorial inside further ponders the issue while layering on the sarcasm: “It has to be said it’s not the first time that Benzema has been subjected to this kind of humiliation. Already, he was not selected to go to the international space station because of his origins. He also wasn’t selected to represent France in the Eurovision Song Contest because of his origins.”

But there is hope another star of Les Bleus can emerge to take the place of Benzema, and emulate Platini (the player) and Zidane.

The less controversial L’Equipe yesterday gathered together a jury of prominent former footballers from each of the 24 competing nations. The major finding was that Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba is set to leave his mark on another major finals after winning the best young player award in Brazil two years ago.

But elsewhere in the same issue there is a debate whether Platini, for whom this tournament was meant to be a crowning glory, will turn up at a game despite being banned from attending in an official capacity.

It’s hard to avoid asking: What has happened? How did we get from the elated atmosphere of 12 July 1998, when their triumph was greeted as a victory for a multi-racial France, to here, where suspicion, division and fear lurks. Where heroes have grown to become anti-heroes.

In the press box on the night a Zidane-inspired France beat Brazil 3-0, some journalists were still writing their reports on typewriters. It was a long time ago. But it seems things have gone backwards. The optimism born then was not enough to ensure sustained change. But then France’s problems are not simply theirs but also those of the world. So we tentatively pray football is allowed to provide some balm – for a month at least.