Who Wins When France Claims the World Cup?

Three Atlantic staffers discuss tricky questions of national—and international—allegiance in sports, after the victory for Les Bleus, which some called “the last African team.”

France's Paul Pogba holds the trophy as he celebrates winning the World Cup
France's Paul Pogba holds the trophy as he celebrates winning the World Cup (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

The final World Cup match was nothing short of exhilarating. Sunday’s showdown in Moscow saw France’s Les Bleus overtake the underdog Croatian team to win its second title, 4–2. The strange, stunning upset featured a gnarly goalkeeper gaffe, an especially ill-timed own goal, and a pitch invasion from the Russian protest performance group Pussy Riot. Played under a blanket of light rain, the match was a spectacle from start to finish.

Even so, the young stars of Les Bleus stole the show. The 19-year-old phenom Kylian Mbappé became the first teenager to score a goal in a World Cup final since the famed Brazilian footballer Pelé (who jokingly threatened to “dust my boots off again” and reclaim his mantle). The 25-year-old Paul Pogba became the first Manchester United player to score a goal in any World Cup final, with a finish inside the box that cemented France’s lead at the critical 59-minute mark. Antoine Griezmann, 27, followed up his penalty-kick goal with his signature dance, borrowed from the video game Fortnite. France’s manager Didier Deschamps saw his own milestone as well: He became the third man ever, joining Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer, to win the title as both a player and a manager.

But the team’s dominance (and exuberance) has raised important questions about France’s overlapping colonial and athletic legacies: Players such as Mbappé and Pogba find their ancestral roots in countries that France once subjugated, countries whose emigrants the European nation still antagonizes via Islamophobic policies and discriminatory housing practices, not to mention overt racism cloaked in color-blind rhetoric. Would its African and Muslim players be celebrated—or even accepted—as Frenchmen if not for their extraordinary football prowess? Was France really “the last African team” standing in the tournament, as many commentators suggested, some half jokingly? Can sports and nationalism ever be fully disentangled?

Following France’s claiming of the Cup, The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis, Krishnadev Calamur, and Tanvi Misra discuss the stakes of rooting for Les Bleus—and the complexities of feeling personally invested in the players’ national identities.

Hannah Giorgis: What a win that was on Sunday! Had y’all been keeping up with this year’s games? Where did you watch the final—and more importantly, how did you feel about it?

Krishnadev Calamur: Although I’m not a football obsessive, I do get obsessive about the World Cup. A small group of us in the Atlantic newsroom watched the games on our laptops at work (sorry, bosses!). But I watched the final with my wife at home. We were supporting France and were delighted to see them win. They weren’t my team at the beginning, though. Because the U.S.A. wasn’t playing, I was backing Brazil to win; depending on the game, I usually support teams from South America and Africa. But France was an easy team for me to cheer in the final. Of the 23 players in the team, 15 have African roots. Unlike some European teams that tend to treat minorities on their national football squads as inconvenient presences in their cultural fabric, France embraced this team well before the World Cup—and the scenes of celebration in Paris after the final only cemented this idea.

Tanvi Misra: To be honest, I try to keep a safe distance from sports. I get that sports can foster a sense of belonging, of community, but I’ve just never quite felt it myself.

In previous World Cups I’ve been roped into watching, I’ve lazily rooted against the former colonial power where applicable—on principle, but also because I didn’t have much else to go on. This game was different. I watched it at a bar in Richmond with my college roommate and with each goal the French team scored, I felt … emotion?

I’d been reading about France’s ascent in this tournament, and realized I had come to care about many of the players in particular; I cared about where they came from. I’ve reported in the suburbs of Paris, not far from where Kylian Mbappé and seven of his teammates grew up, and I felt a kinship with the residents of those areas—people of immigrant backgrounds who might feel they have to constantly prove that they’re just as French as those with Western European heritage. Now, here they were: the brown and black young men from the banlieues—strutting onto the field in their blue kits and taking the country to victory. To me, they are the faces of France. That’s why I ended up rooting for the French; I was rooting for the banlieusards.

Giorgis: Blessedly, I watched the final match in my favorite place, my apartment, flanked by my usual crew of fellow immigrant kids who feel Diaspora Things(™) very deeply. I’d only been watching the series in spurts thus far, with my interest dwindling in direct correlation with the number of African teams remaining, but I was interested in seeing if France would emerge victorious. Like you, Tanvi, I am loathe to root for any colonial power, but the calculus here wasn’t so simple.

Knowing that my parents’ native Ethiopia had never qualified (and likely never will, barring some miraculous update to ankle-exercising technology), and that all the other African nations had been eliminated before the knockout stage, I turned my sights to France because I tend to root for (almost) everybody black. I respected Croatia’s astonishing game-play, but the French team had my heart.

Still, my newfound attachment to France came with its fair share of asterisks. How do those of us rooting for Les Bleus—who may also be people of color, children of immigrants, or immigrants ourselves—square our support of this team, and of the young immigrant men whose efforts propelled it to such heights, with the larger political context in which it exists? It’s difficult for me to overlook the fact that it is these men’s exceptional gift—and what they have produced for the country—that renders them worthy of praise as Frenchmen in the eyes of the nativist portions of France’s populace.

Misra: I’ve definitely bristled in the aftermath of the final at takes that said, “See? Immigrants can help you win the World Cup!” I understand the need for that idea at a time when so many countries are putting up walls, creating migrant “ghettos,” and punishing asylum seekers. The belief that immigrants are threats—to safety, economic well-being, and the dominant culture—seems to have reached a crescendo, so I sympathize with the urge to try and disprove that.

But the thing is: Immigrants are people—some are exceptional and some are ordinary. All of us are flawed. The popular narratives surrounding immigration—pro and against—tend not to account for that human complexity. They are based on ideas of “good” and “bad” that are steeped in assumptions about race and class. So while Mbappé is being celebrated now, I wonder what might happen if he’s pushed off this pedestal and no longer fits that super-idealized mold. Does he somehow become less French to those who see themselves as gatekeepers of French identity?

Giorgis: It was fascinating to see political figures like the French ambassador to the U.S. even go so far as to chide black people, most notably the South African comedian and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, for emphasizing the African heritage of Les Bleus players. “Unlike the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion, or origin,” Ambassador Gérard Araud wrote in response to Noah’s suggestion that the World Cup title was “an African victory.”

Araud’s insistence on claiming Les Bleus players of African descent as French and French alone is at once hollow and revelatory. The ambassador’s color-blind rhetoric doesn’t accurately reflect the policies and attitudes of a country that treats its migrant population with derision, with policies that ban coverings associated with Islam and accelerate deportation processes. Araud and others like him may cling to the ideals espoused by those words, but that doesn’t mean all people living in France have equal access to that national identity.

Calamur: Immigration, everywhere, is a complicated issue. To some extent, the U.S. has been relatively immune until recently from some of the more incendiary debate you see in places like Europe—not to mention in Asia and Africa. Having said that, I understand the French desire to “normalize” the immigrant backgrounds of their team members—even if that doesn’t always have the intended effect. This, after all, is a country in which a far-right party, the National Front, has gone from a fringe element to the runner-up in last year’s presidential election. Until about a decade ago, there were allegations that French football authorities were using racial quotas to limit the number of young blacks and Arabs playing the sport at a competitive level. This itself was a decade after France first won the World Cup—in 1998—with a multiracial team that, at the time, was largely celebrated, much like this one is, for its representation of modern France. But while sports can and do provide a veneer of unity in fractured societies, they cannot fix the deep-seated problems of race, class, and economic inequality.

Giorgis: Right, and in the U.S. you see that access to the kinds of training programs that would enable would-be footballers to succeed (potentially on an international stage) is stratified by race and class as well. But even as athletic governing bodies and elected officials alike spout harmful rhetoric about people of color, these so-called exceptions—Pogba, Mbappé, Tim Howard—have ascended into the highest echelons of sports that have historically been unwelcoming to people like them.

To the extent that sports can serve to unify a country (or state, or city), there’s also no real proof that rooting for black athletes breeds any sort of compassion for those players once they leave the field, or for the people who look like them. There are countless NFL fans who live and die by their teams, but refuse to support the majority of their teams’ players as they protest a system that quite literally kills black people with impunity.

Misra: Hannah, that disconnect you’re talking about was evident, too, in how different groups within France experienced this win. After the World Cup, I received a Facebook message from a young woman I’d met while reporting outside of Paris last fall. Chayma Drira, who lives in La Courneuve, a suburb north of the city, informed me that some of the transit service in the suburbs had been suspended. Ostensibly, this was done for security reasons, but made it difficult for many in the outskirts to come together in the streets and celebrate France’s victory. “We wanted to celebrate but felt banished from the national joy,” she wrote in French. To her, she added, this occurrence signaled a familiar paradox: People of migrant backgrounds are required, time and again, to publicly affirm their allegiance to France. But they’re simultaneously cut off from participating in the national story.

The banlieues, where Mbappé and others are from, get a lot of municipal funding that makes football training possible. Still, the overall stigma associated with these spaces remains. Banlieues are still considered hubs of terrorism—areas that need to be surveilled and regulated. And as I’ve previously written, France’s “color-blind” urban policy, in some ways, perpetuates that stigma. So far, a meaningful reckoning with how France helped create conditions in the banlieues—and with its role in colonization and slavery, segregation, and policing—is missing. This win also doesn’t change that.

Giorgis: So what does that mean for fans, both casual and die-hard? Does propping up a colonial nation, even in passing, contribute to the harm its residents face? Does supporting the French national team require a commitment to investigating (or at least thinking about) the conditions that shaped the rise of its star players? And perhaps most confusingly, how do Africans and immigrants of all backgrounds metabolize this familiar contradiction amid others’ unbridled joy?

Calamur: It’s difficult to separate history and politics from culture—especially in a sport like football. Racism is rife in European leagues. Croatian fans are known for singing a fascist anthem. Then, in this World Cup, three Swiss players of Albanian origin flashed the Albanian eagle, a nationalist symbol, while playing Serbia. Yet, speaking only for myself, I’ve moved from watching sports as a political event to watching it for the unbridled joy it can bring. The football World Cup, especially, is one of those rare events in which politics can be temporarily transcended. And when a nation, embracing its multicultural team, ultimately wins, I’m happy to delude myself into seeing it as a tiny victory for social progress.

Misra: Like Krishnadev, I was thrilled by this win. Even if it didn’t magically solve the larger issues immigrants face around the world, it was welcome catharsis. But sports has always been political, and once the high wears off, I hope this win will help elevate conversations around racial and economic justice that have been happening among banlieue residents. Who is a part of the national narrative? Who is left out? And what distinguishes the two groups? These questions have never really been tackled head-on by the French—and many other governments around the world—and now would be a good time to start.