World Cups are built to create cycles of memory and hope. They offer a predictable structure that creates space for the unpredictable, and they create vertiginous chronologies. England makes it to its first semifinal in 28 years, hoping to get to its first final in 52 years, and then a goal by Croatia erases it all. The numbers are, in a sense, banal. But they are shot through with deep sadness because the time of waiting stretches out over lifetimes, and in most cases even longer.
The layers of memory at work in France today are particularly powerful. The story of the 1998 World Cup is now legend: A team made up of a diverse cast of characters—a Basque player named Bixente Lizarazu, a Guadeloupean named Lilian Thuram, a child of Algerian immigrants named Zinedine Zidane, a descendent of Kanaks from the French territory of New Caledonia named Christian Karembeu, and more—played joyously and victoriously. Zidane scored two goals against Brazil in the final. The victory came in France on July 12, and the three days of celebration that followed ran over the Bastille Day weekend. The only comparison anyone could find was the liberation of Paris in 1944 because of the sense of an opening onto brighter futures, and the ways in which people from all classes and backgrounds merged and melded in the streets.
Two years earlier, the French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had attacked the players, claiming many of them were “foreigners” and complaining that some didn’t sing La Marseillaise before the games, suggesting they didn’t really love France. The players themselves responded powerfully in words, but most powerfully by winning in 1998. Their victory was seen as a vindication of the idea that it was precisely thanks to its diversity and its immigrant population that France could be strong and victorious. The celebrations in the streets enacted that sense of possibility, with all the groups mixing together in an ebullient embrace, the French flag speaking the stories of players such as Zidane and Thuram as the true story of the country. Over the next few years, Thuram used his iconic status to speak out eloquently against racism and for more open and human policies on immigration, work that ultimately led him to create a foundation focused on anti-racist education.
In 2006, a French team once again led by Zidane and Thuram made it to the World Cup final, then lost after Zidane head-butted an Italian player and was expelled from the game. The gesture became a global meme and symbol that spurred fascinating conversations, and ultimately it only expanded the legend surrounding Zidane. But the pain of that night’s loss haunts this week’s final, a prodding anxiety that something like that might happen again.
What the team represents—and what at times has continued to earn it virulent racist attacks—is a forcible truth about what France actually is. The team, like the nation, is a global crossroads, a place shaped by hundreds of years of colonial history and migration. That fact of history, which is the foundation for the country’s future, is often overlooked, or dealt with through xenophobic fantasies. At the very least, the French team resists that tendency. In victory, it offers the opportunity both to face reality and, through embracing and knowing it, to craft it anew.