Enfants de la Patrie

By Philippe Auclair

The definitive history of modern French football.


icon (also ikon) 1. A devotional painting of Christ or another holy figure, typically executed on wood and used ceremonially in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches. 2. A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration: ‘this iron-jawed icon of American manhood’. So says the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Zinedine Zidane’ would a tempting addition: ‘regarded…as worthy of veneration’, yes, most certainly. When your face is beamed on the Arc de Triomphe on the night of France’s greatest-ever sporting exploit, of which you’ve been the undoubted hero, how could you not be?

To acknowledge Zidane’s iconic status does not necessarily mean that it was bestowed on him by a nation united in gratitude, as I was recently reminded of in a Parisian cab. Each time I step in one, I ask myself the same question: ‘is that one a talker?’ London cabbies can easily be ignored; it’s just a matter of sliding shut the glass partition and switching off the intercom. No such luck in France, where you have to settle on the back seats, trying to ignore a lingering olfactive afternote; of the canine variety, generally. If the guy wants to talk, he does. If he wants to listen to zouk hits, he will. Satnav has made passenger-bothering easier than ever before, and I haven’t come across a Parisian taxi driver who could do without it for ages. The one I’d just hailed outside my radio station hardly listened to my instructions, as he was too busy keying in (and mis-spelling) our destination. He was a talker nonetheless. And what, whom he wanted to talk about was Zinédine Zidane.

It was a well-rehearsed spiel, one which he’d already tested on an audience of hundreds, if not thousands. It started with: ‘I come from Algeria…’. I was waiting for the ‘but’, which duly came after the expected beat. ‘But I am a Kabyle’. (Kabyles are the indigenous people of the Maghreb, part of the Berber ethnic group, who were subjected to a process of ‘arabisation’ by their Muslim colonizers from the 7th century AD onwards, but have managed to retain their language and their culture to this day). ‘We’ve given a lot to France’, he continued, ‘and I’m proud of it’. He proceeded to reel off an impressive list of people who had enriched our national life. Some say that no less than a third of France’s six million citizens of Algerian heritage are Kabyles. Actors, singers (did you know Edith Piaf had a Berber grandfather?), scientists, journalists, politicians. But ‘Zidane, ah non!, and I’ll tell you why’.

‘Why’ had nothing to do with the Matterazzi headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final, or the vicious stamp on Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Al-Khlaiwi in France’s second game of the 1998 tournament, or the fourteen red cards the country’s favourite sportsman collected in an otherwise stellar career. It had to do with what my taxi driver called the ‘cowardice’ of a man who’d forgotten where he’d come from. ‘If only he’d spoken!...but he said nothing’. What he meant was: spoken about the bloodbath of Algeria’s ‘Black Spring’, three months of government-sponsored thuggery, rape and violence, between April and June 2001, which resulted in the death of at least 120 Kabyle demonstrators who’d taken to the streets after the murder of a high-school student named Massinissa Guermah in a police station. Marseilles-born Zidane, whose parents Smaïl and Malika both hail from Kabylia, kept his own counsel when asked to comment on the tragedy. This could easily be forgiven in 2001. Zizou was at his peak as a sportsman. He did not wish to see his name and reputation used and abused by opportunistic politicians. He’d refused to be drawn into the Franco-French pseudo-debate about ‘integration’ and ‘communitarism’ after the victory of Les Bleus in 1998, when the whole country – or so it seemed – became obsessed with the fantasy of a new ‘rainbow nation’ (that delusion didn’t last long). Good for him.

By the summer of 2006, however, Zidane had retired; and, on 22 July, thirteen days after Italy beat France on penalties in his last-ever official game, an open letter signed by prominent members of the kabyle diaspora was addressed to Materazzi’s nemesis/victim. This touching, loving, somewhat naïve document, which was endorsed by eighteen kabyle and Berber organisations [if you want to have a look at it, Robert, here goes: http://www.rezki.net/Lettre-ouverte-des-Kabyles-a.html], did not elicit a response from its recipient. Unless this was the response: five months later, on 12 December, Zidane walked out on the tarmac of Algiers airport to be engulfed by a near-hysterical crowd. The plane that had brought him to the land his ancestors came from, but which he knew very little about, had been chartered by President Abdelaziz Buteflika, the man who’d masterminded the brutal repression of the kabyle uprising five years earlier. The terms of Buteflika’s invitation letter verged on the grotesque. The (elected) dictator saluted the ‘beautiful, courageous, exceptional career that you [Zidane] have been able to build with pugnacity, wisdom, audaciousness and ponderation (sic), above all with incomparable fair-play’. To wit, referring to that ‘Materazzi moment’, ZZ  had ‘first and foremost reacted as a man of honour’. Zidane didn’t disappoint his host. He kept schtum about that nastiness in 2001. Constantly accompanied by ten of Buteflika’s bodyguards, he emoted about his ‘return’, which was more like a first coming, he pressed the flesh when he had to, spending one whole hour in his father’s village, Aguemoun. In five days. It should have been three hours, but schedules are subject to change when you’re a superstar. Too bad for the guys who’d been preparing couscous for fifty people since dawn. They might not have minded that much. They were too happy to see their cousin (one newspaper claimed there were two hundred such cousins in attendance that day), their hero. He was whisked away, not his fault, etc. He’d made the effort, that’s all that mattered. But made the effort for what, for whom? Repression? Buteflika?

By then, my cabbie had gone to eleven on the indignation scale. He saw me nodding in assent in the mirror. I was thinking of something else. I was thinking of Zahir Belounis, the French-Algerian footballer who was kept against his will in Qatar for nineteen months, a casualty of the notorious kefala system. Belounis had made a public appeal to Qatar 2022’s most prominent ambassadors, Pep Guardiola – and Zinedine Zidane. Help me, please. Help me get out of this hell. Guardiola let it be known that he was not au fait with the particulars of Zahir’s situation and stopped at that. I searched and searched for a reaction, any reaction from Zidane’s camp and could find none. In mitigation, you’d have to say that it couldn’t have been that easy for Zizou to react. He’d been paid a lot of money to sponsor the Qatari bid. Sources close to him, or claiming to be, asserted that he’d been reluctant to become the flag-bearer of the emirate’s ambition to host the planet’s biggest tournament. It was reported that the price for his endorsement was a cool $15m (plus $1m/year until the competition took place, should Qatar win the thing). This was subsequently denied, albeit not very convincingly. All monies were paid to the footballer’s foundation.

Regardless of the figures, which might well have been exaggerated, the hard fact remained: Zidane has cashed in. As Guardiola, already mentioned, Ronald de Boer, Batistuta, Roger Milla had done. A few others too. There is nothing scandalous in that. David Beckham’s support for England 2018 was not solely motivated by patriotism; his ‘soccer schools’ would have benefited at least indirectly from the award of the tournament to the English. What grated with Zidane is what he said to promote the cause of his new benefactors and, especially, what he said after they drew FIFA’s winning lottery ticket. “Beyond the victory of Qatar, this is especially a victory for the Arab world and the Middle East”, he said. “This is what touched me most. It’s nice to have something new. It was nice to show that football belongs to everyone. They said that Qatar was less likely [to win] because it is a small country. But Qatar represents the Arab world and today that is the logic that has prevailed. I am proud of this victory.”

I read that, and think: “but, Zinedine, you are not an Arab. In Algeria, ‘Arabs’ have been marginalizing Kabyles for thirteen centuries. You don’t even speak the language. You’re not a practising Muslim, if you want to use the – fallacious – ummah argument. Just say it as it is, for goodness sake, we’ll still love you”. But I’m afraid this argument won’t take anyone very far. I’m thinking of what Emmanuel Petit has said. “Zidane and myself, we’re different, we’ve got nothing to say to each other. You can’t pretend you’re helping those who are in need when you’re serving the cause of the big bosses who’re registering record profits without re-distributing them. When you acquire a dimension like his, which is beyond reason, it’s good to state your own own convictions from time to time. He’s become untouchable”. Which is true. But Zidane doesn’t do ‘convictions’. ‘Convictions’ don’t do much for business. And business is something that Zidane cares a great deal about.

In 2008, a French journalist called Besma Lahouri, who has since written a biography of France’s former First Lady and tonally-challenged pop singer Carla Bruni as well as a quite entertaining account of President Hollande’s ménage à trois, published Zidane – Une vie secrète (‘Zidane – A Secret Life’), a book which caused more stir before it was published than when reviewers got hold of an advance copy and delivered their – generally unfavourable - verdicts. The author’s flat had been burgled twice before the final version was delivered. Lahouri’s laptops were stolen on both occasions. This must be hot shit, we all thought. People started to fantasize about what Lahouri had dug out. All these rumours about Zizou’s private life…performance-enhancing drugs at Juventus* (and elsewhere)…ooh. When it became clear that Lahouri hadn’t found any smoking gun – in a country where libel law pretty much favours the attacker -, interest in her work dwindled somewhat, which is a pity. It’s not that this book represents a landmark in football or investigative writing. Critics chose epithets such as ‘laboured’, ‘repetitive’, ‘clumsy’ to describe its style. No bombshells. No ooh factor. But it showed a Zidane far removed from the saintly character who, alone among the victors of 1998, had entered the national pantheon, and regularly topped the list of ‘the most loved personalities’ (not sportsmen – personalities) in France. How Zizou acquired this status is fascinating in itself. The balletic beauty of his game, his ability to be at his best when it most mattered (though less often than his hagiographers have suggested) were the foundation of his extraordinary popularity, obviously enough. He wouldn’t have taken his seat among the gods in Olympus if he hadn’t scored those two headers against Brazil on 12 July 1998. But this couldn’t explain how he shot into that heroic dimension – not a mega-star, a meta-star - in a country which cares far less about football than any of its neighbours.

What attracted people to him was his shyness, his winning, self-deprecating smile, his charm, what my mother called his gentillesse, which is far more than kindness. His looks too. He was handsome, but seemingly unaware of it; this wasn’t the kind of footballer whom you’d imagine preening himself for hours, transforming his body into an object of desire; in fact, he’d never looked a natural athlete, even after bulking up impressively while playing in Serie A. The early baldness, which he did nothing to hide, suited him and was yet another proof of his essential normality. He clearly loved his children; he loved children, full stop, as he’d shown in his work for several charities, his own foundation included. The very fact that he hardly ever gave interviews and stayed well clear of the celebrity circus brought proof of his humility. He was far more than the ideal footballer: he was the ideal son, the ideal father, the ideal husband, the ideal son-in-law. And he was a second-generation ‘immigrant’ (a kabyle to boot, which, in the twisted collective psyche of mainstream, Caucasian France, made him some kind of super-Arab) who presented as unthreatening an image of immigration as could be. Ah, if only they could all be like Zizou!

Lahouri’s book, for all its imperfections, scratched the veneer of this fantasmatic construct to reveal a far less seductive character, a manipulator who had carefully built, exploited and protected the cult of Zidane to gain money and power. It was a remarkable ascent for the scrawny kid from an impoverished Marseilles banlieue, who’d left school at 15 and, even before he retired, had grown to enjoy the friendship of business tycoons like Franck Riboud (chairman and CEO of the Danone group) and Jacques Bungert (co-chairman of the Young & Rubicam advertising agency and of the Courrèges fashion house). Riboud even suggested – in July 2006 – that the footballer who’d promoted his brand since 2001 could be given a place on the board of his multinational. François-Henri Pinault, the billionaire owner of the Kering Group, who’d sometimes lend his private jet to the travelling footballer when he played for Real Madrid, is another such connection. These are the kind of links which jarred with Petit. With a ball at his feet, Zidane was a poet. Away from it, he became a businessman solely motivated by self-interest. There is nothing essentially untoward or morally reprehensible in this; in truth, the example of Zidane could serve as a case study of the modern super-sportsman, the footballer as ‘brand’. We might deplore this, turn our noses away and long for a bygone age when sport was about glory (or so we like to believe). But can it be held against Zidane that he’d exploited a system which pre-existed him? Why then do I find it so difficult to reconcile those two sides of his persona? The answer: perhaps because they are inextricably intertwined and that, ridiculous as it may be, the idea that football is not an end in itself and could be used as a tool for self-promotion remains hard to swallow, especially when the footballer in question won our love for the sheer beauty of his play. This is not why we watch it, is it?

On 23 April 2005, film-makers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno installed seventeen synchronized cameras around the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. All these cameras would be trained on Zidane throughout a La Liga encounter between Real Madrid and Villareal. This was not the first time that the player had collaborated with documentary makers: in 2002 already, his friend Stéphane Meunier (*) had put together a celebratory portrait, Comme dans un rêve (‘As In A Dream’), which only met with modest success in France, given that the 2002 World Cup was a nightmare for both the national team and its injured playmaker. Gordon’s and Parreno’s film, Zidane – A 21st Century Portrait, belonged to a different genre, however. No other player, before or since, had been or would be the subject of such an ambitious and expensive project. The aim, from the outset, was to create not just a work of art, but a masterpiece. The result is an overblown, over-stylized creation laden with the kind of video trickery which will be familiar to any MTV viewer: ninety-one minutes of advertizing, the product being Zidane himself. Just compare this with the film which inspired its format, Helmuth Costard’s 1971 Fussball Wie Noch Nie (Football as never before), shot on 12 September 1970 with eight 16mm cameras, which focused on George Best for the whole duration of a 2-0 victory by Manchester United over Coventry City. For all its knowing avant-guardism, Costard’s filmic essay, shot with Best’s assent, but not at his request, has aged rather better than Gordon’s and Parretto’s. It’s hard not to see Zidane – A 21st Century Portrait as an exercise in self-aggrandizement, vetted by the film’s hero (who got sent off at the end of the 2-1 win) and his retinue of advisors; another effort to reinforce a lucrative brand, rather than the celebration the player’s art certainly deserved. There would be yet another documentary, again directed by Meunier, Le Dernier match (2007), which was co-produced by Zidane himself. File under ‘overkill’.

None of this would really matter, maybe, if that facet of Zidane, architect of his own mythology, could be separated from the genius who made us gasp time and again on a football field. But, as I’ve said before, the orchestrator of legend, the manipulator cannot be set aside that easily. Back in 2004, when his power to shape games appeared to be on the wane, it was clear that France was blessed with another outstanding talent to whom he could pass the baton. Thierry Henry was nearing the apex of his career. He’d had a superb Confederations Cup the previous year (a tournament Zidane took no part in), and was at last showing signs that he could replicate his astonighingly consistent form for Arsenal with Les Bleus, for whom he’d shone more fitfully (*). It had become a subject of particular frustration that Zidane and Henry seemed incapable to dovetail when put on the pitch together. The latter’s comments that France was not playing to his strengths (which was true, if clumsily expressed) hadn’t gone down well in public opinion; to say this was to question the contribution of the untouchable Zidane. More damagingly, there were rumours (as early as 2002), which were amplified in the media, that a clan des Gunners (comprising Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Henry, plus unnamed accomplices) was plotting against Zizou. To those who didn’t buy into this conspiracy theory, of whom I was one, this looked suspiciously as if Zidane himself was not too happy about seeing the young upstart projecting too long a shadow on his patch. Nothing could be proven. But why was it then that Zidane, the chief creative force of Les Bleus, appeared incapable of exploiting Henry’s pace and sharpness of movement? The statistics were incomprehensible. Zidane had never provided an assist for the serial Premier League and European Golden Boot. Never. By the 2006 World Cup, not one pass from France’s number 10 to its number 12 had resulted in a goal in the fifty-one games they’d played together (*). In the meantime, Zidane had supplied assists to no less than twelve different French team-mates, including Jean-Alain Boumsong and Mickaël Silvestre. Symptomatically, Henry was considered the guilty party, as it was unthinkable that Zidane could freeze out a fellow player to protect his aura. I’d like to believe that this was just a freaky conjunction of events, two planets orbiting around different suns.

I’d like to believe that, but find it hard to do so.


 (*) In 2003, French singer Johnny Halliday, an acquaintance of Zidane’s, let slip on a French TV programme that he had visited a clinic where ‘they take your blood, they oxygenate it, they put it back in. It’s fantastic. Zidane goes there twice a year.’ The same allegation was made by Spanish cyclist Oscar Pereiro on Spanish television in 2011. This practice is, of course, outlawed in sports; but the French FA chose not to investigate the matter, and the player denied having ever resorted to that procedure.

(*) Meunier, who shot Zidane’s advertisement for Volvic mineral water (Volvic being one of the numerous brands controlled by the Danone group) in 2001, is better known for his – superb - fly-on-the-wall documentary about France 1998 World Cup campaign Les Yeux dans les Bleus.

(*) Or such was the opinion of most pundits; but it should be remembered that it was Henry, not Zidane, who was the most influential of the two at the 2000 Euro.

(*) That sorry series came to an end in the 1-0 victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals of that tournament, when Henry volleyed in Zidane’s free-kick.

A fractured team, a fractured country

It was last winter, on the terrace of a restaurant where the bigwigs of the French FA regularly draw on their expense accounts to lunch in some style. The man talking to me was – still is, but maybe not for long, if President Sarkozy has his way – one of the highest-ranking members of this administration, who’d come out in support of Raymond Domenech after the Euro 2008 debacle. You wouldn’t have guessed so by his parting words. “Domenech’s poisoning everything”,  he said, “but we don’t know how we can get rid of him”. Several months later, in London, I had a long talk with another influential figure from the Fédération Française de Football. “We won’t be in the last 16 in the World Cup”, he assured me. “Not with Domenech”. Why on earth, then, if everyone bar Raymond-la-science himself agreed that the ‘impostor’ had to go, did France stick to him until it was too late? Well, it had been too late for a long time already, ever since the manager who never won a thing was chosen to replace Jacques Santini in the summer of 2004. As a pure product of the institution, who’d manoeuvered his way up the hierarchy by showing unerring instinct in whom to follow, and whom to jettison, Domenech was perceived to be a ‘safe choice’. True, the FA had long practised this rule of ‘promotion from within’, and had been rewarded with two major trophies for its long-term strategy. But whereas it had previously been driven by a desire to build a structure (and a culture) of success from almost nothing, this time, the motivation was to preserve a status quo. It was the first sign that sclerosis had set in. Domenech accelerated the catastrophe, but was a fruit rather than the root of the disease.

It is easy, and often convenient, to confuse cause with consequence. Nicolas Anelka’s foul-mouthed outburst, the farcical ‘strike’ that followed, the statement of solidarity forced upon the whole squad by a clique of senior players (drawn by one of the plotters’ legal team, incidentally), Thierry Henry’s surreal meeting with President Sarkozy last Thursday: none of these extraordinary events were predictable, but all of them fitted logically in the unravelling of a system that, not so long ago, had delivered a World Cup and a European title to Les Bleus. Domenech himself is far too mediocre a man to have precipitated the final crisis by himself; every Ancien Régime has the Louis XVI it deserves when the time for a revolution is ripe, when self-interest becomes paramount to every cog in the wheel that’s come undone. What we are witnessing is not just the shocking failure of a once-great team;  more then anything, it is the final spasm of a dying body, of a whole system ridden with clientelism, incompetence and corruption.

But this wouldn’t matter much if the French football team hadn’t become the repository of so many hopes ever since that glorious night of July 1998, when a whole nation rejoiced at the exploits of Zidane’s team. It was possible to see in the manner of their victory the promise of a new national identity, the proof of how great this country could be if it only shook off the neuroses borne out of its colonial past. Blacks, whites and Arabs reconciliated – and triumphant – under the tricolour flag: a heady notion. It didn’t take long, of course, to realise that beating Brazil in a World Cup final and mending a fractured society were not quite the same thing. That dream, though, could still serve as a marker for the future rather than turn out to be a mere delusion. But now? We’re not so sure anymore.

On Wednesday afternoon, supporters of Algeria – the overwhelming majority of them French citizens – rioted in a Paris suburb after their team’s elimination from the World Cup. This incident was hardly reported in the French media. We’ve come to expect this kind of stuff from the racaille (‘scum’) of the banlieue, to use Sarkozy’s typically delicate phrase. We don’t want to ‘inflame’ a part of the population that 90% of ‘ordinary Frenchmen’ live in fear of, the enemies at the gates of our cities. Let them rot in their high-rise ghettos, those feral youths who ignore the sense of words like ‘work’, ‘respect’, ‘discipline’ and ‘nation’. That is: until they show they can kick a ball well enough to make a career out of it, at which point they can become French, provided they win, of course. Look at the disgraced team that’s just flown back from South Africa. Most of them are children of the banlieue. Two-thirds have West Indian and African roots. Anelka, Govou, Diaby, Sagna, Diarra, Evra, Cissé...even their names sound odd to our republican ears. Their behaviour? I tell you, sir – what else would you expect from racailles like these? This is not Jean-Marie Le Pen and his racist National Front sympathisers speaking, this is what I’ve heard time and time again from irreproachable liberals over the last few days. The screen on which we watch Les Bleus play is a mirror. In 1998, we saw a vibrant group of young men in whom we wanted to recognise ourselves; in 2010, a collection of pseudo-stars obsessed with money and VIP lifestyles, rude, shameless, and who –like William Gallas – only remember the words of Ia Marseillaise when their agents tell them to. And we think: our country’s doomed. We’d fallen out of love with a football team after Henry’s double handball; we’re now realising that we’ve fallen out of love with ourselves. And if we thought the players were bad, well, those who’ve looked after them are probably even worse. The rats, all of them white, are scrambling out of the sinking French FA, shrieking, ‘nothing to do with us! Nothing to do with us!’ At which point Nicolas Sarkozy cancels a scheduled meeting with representatives of 130 French NGOs to accommodate the wishes of that ghost, Thierry Henry. We couldn’t score goals, we can still score –political – points. Laurent Blanc will need luck when he takes over. So do we all, right now.


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