Why France Are Carrying Africa's Hopes in the World Cup Final

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 13, 2018

B/R

Officially, Africa's involvement in the World Cup ended in Samara on June 28, when Senegal were eliminated by Colombia. But in the eyes of football fans from across the continent, there is still one African team left in the tournament. And they face Croatia in the final on Sunday.

There are at least 15 players with African roots in the France squad, and their lineages stem from all over Africa.

Samuel Umtiti was born in Cameroon, Steve Mandanda in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Paul Pogba's parents are from Guinea, N'Golo Kante's from Mali. Blaise Matuidi's parents are from Angola and came to France via DR Congo. Kylian Mbappe has an Algerian mother and a Cameroonian father. Presnel Kimpembe and Steven Nzonzi's fathers are Congolese. Corentin Tolisso's dad is from Togo. The list goes on.

They are associations the players wear proudly. After France's scintillating 4-3 victory over Argentina in the last 16, Kimpembe posted a video on Instagram that showed the team's players—among them Pogba, Benjamin Mendy and Antoine Griezmann—dancing to the song "Seka Seka" by Congolese artist DJ Marechal on the plane taking them back to their base camp in Istra. One Twitter user commented that it could have been filmed on a bus destined for the Malian capital Bamako.

African music has been playing in the background throughout France's World Cup journey, even extending to the stadiums. The song played each time France score a goal is "Magic in the Air" by Ivorian group Magic System, which was chosen as the team's official fan song prior to the tournament by the French Football Federation.

The four-piece group performed for the French squad (and coach Didier Deschamps) at Clairefontaine ahead of their departure to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, and "Magic in the Air" has been their theme song ever since.

France's African connections have earned them the tag of Africa's "sixth team" at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and they have an even broader appeal than the five African sides—Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia—who featured at the tournament.

Umtiti, Mbappe and Pogba have all been key players for France
Umtiti, Mbappe and Pogba have all been key players for FranceFRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

In the eyes of many African football fans, France are not just a team full of players with African heritage. They are something akin to a Pan-African football team.


As one of four Cameroon-born players to have made it to the World Cup (along with the Swiss trio of Francois Moubandje, Breel Embolo and Yvon Mvogo), Umtiti's performances in Russia have been followed particularly closely in the land of his birth, and there was delight when he scored the goal against Belgium that sent France into the final.

"His goal in the semi-final was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm and passion, especially here in Yaounde," says Njie Enow Ebai, a journalist from national broadcaster Cameroon Radio Television. "One newspaper even had the headline: 'CAMEROON QUALIFIES FRANCE FOR WORLD CUP FINAL.'"

Ebai says that for Cameroonian football fans in the French-speaking parts of the country, supporting France is a natural choice.

"People tend to gravitate towards the French national team. They recognise themselves in that team," he says.

"If you go to most of the major bars, pubs and hotels, they're airing World Cup games and you very often see fans clad in French colours cheering Les Bleus to victory. It's not like it's Cameroon playing, but you can see from the celebrations that there's a lot of support for France."

Mbappe's Cameroonian ancestry has given people in Cameroon an additional reason to root for France. The teenager's popularity has been further enhanced by the fact that he shares his surname and certain physical characteristics with Samuel Mbappe Leppe, whose performances in midfield for Oryx Douala in the 1960s turned him into the first star of Cameroonian football.

In Mali, too, football fans have rallied in support of Mbappe and France. Loyalties in Bamoko are typically split between Barcelona and Real Madrid, with those of a Barca bearing tending to support Lionel Messi's Argentina while fans of a Madrid persuasion pitch in with Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal (up to now, at least). After both Argentina and Portugal fell by the wayside, France stepped into the void.

"During this tournament, the people of Mali have considered that Africa is represented by six countries and not by five. The sixth team is France," says Malian journalist Amadou Alhousseini Toure.

"People are supporting France more than any other team because those who are pro-Barca saw Argentina go out and those who are pro-Real Madrid saw Portugal go out. People support France because of the African players who play for them."

As a former French colony, Mali still gets news piped into the country from France via media organisations such as Canal+, Radio France International and Agence France-Presse. For those interested in football in the country, it means that France's club sides—and by extension their players—are even more familiar than teams from the local area.

"There's a strong French influence in our media, and people are generally sympathetic towards France," Toure says in a phone call from Bamako.

"There are historic reasons—the help of the French army in the reconquest of the northern part of Mali is one recent example—but it's not just that. It's a football that people know. Ligue 1 matches are shown on TV5, and people know the players like the backs of their hands."

N'Golo Kante
N'Golo KanteVI-Images/Getty Images

In Senegal, interest in the French national team stretches back over half a century.

"Our parents and our elders followed France in the 1950s via the radio and the newspapers," says Mamadou Koume, a journalist based in Dakar.

"Lots of [Senegalese] footballers at the time had nicknames like Kopa [after Raymond Kopa], Fontaine [after Just Fontaine], Marche [after Roger Marche], Ujlaki [after Joseph Ujlaki] or Jonquet [after Robert Jonquet]."


Belgium was DR Congo's former colonial ruler, but there again, France's televisual reach has enabled it to insert itself into the local culture.

"There's a societal influence here because everyone's hooked up to French television stations," says Congolese journalist Dickson Yalla.

"One in every three homes in Kinshasa will have a Canal+ decoder, so there's a strong cultural influence from France and we get the French news as well. They're the first national team [outside the country] that Congolese people follow."

Inevitably, interest in the French national team in DR Congo centres around the players with ties to the country—Mandanda, Matuidi, Kimpembe, Nzonzi—but not all of those with a Congolese connection are viewed in the same light.

Mandanda is not blamed for having opted to play for France (a blow softened by the fact that his younger brother, Parfait, now keeps goal for DR Congo). Nzonzi, on the other hand, has not been forgiven for repeatedly turning down the country's call before finally winning his first France cap last year at the age of 28.

"Steven Nzonzi is viewed very badly. It's excusable for Mandanda, but it's not excusable for Nzonzi," says Yalla.

There are mixed feelings about Steven Nzonzi in DR Congo
There are mixed feelings about Steven Nzonzi in DR CongoTF-Images/Getty Images

Nzonzi is not the only player with African ancestry who can testify to the fury of a mother country scorned. Even a player as universally admired as Kante was held in contempt by football fans in Mali for holding out for a call from France, although attitudes toward him have since softened.

Nabil Fekir created a maelstrom of controversy in Algeria when, after months of suspense, he elected to play for France in March 2015 rather than the country of his parents' birth. While matters of eligibility are generally seen in shades of grey in most of France's former colonies, in Algeria issues involving the country's former colonial masters have a habit of being viewed in stark black and white.


Having brutally colonised Algeria for 132 years, France has a deeply sensitive relationship with the North African nation, meaning it is one Francophone country where support for Les Bleus is thin on the ground.

"I think most people are against the French national team," says Maher Mezahi, an Algerian journalist based in Algiers.

"It's not the nicest thing to say, but for the older generations, as soon as they see the [French] flag or hear the anthem, it reminds them of bad memories. The younger generation haven't really experienced that and they're maybe fans of Mbappe or Pogba and they identify with them, so they have a stronger attachment to the French team."

Feelings of enmity towards France have been sharpened by the role Deschamps has played in abridging the international careers of Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri—the two most high-profile French players of Algerian descent of the last 10 years—and Hatem Ben Arfa, who is of Tunisian extraction.

Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema are no longer part of the set-up
Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema are no longer part of the set-upJohn Berry/Getty Images

Nasri retired from international football in 2014 after Deschamps did not take him to the World Cup, and Ben Arfa last played for France in November 2015. Benzema's France career has been in suspended animation ever since the Mathieu Valbuena sex-tape affair erupted three years ago. After missing out on a place at Euro 2016, Benzema accused Deschamps of bowing to pressure from "a racist part of France." When Eric Cantona insinuated that Deschamps was racist, the France coach sued him.

Deschamps' predecessor, Laurent Blanc, became embroiled in a race row in 2011. He was secretly recorded apparently voicing support for quotas that would have limited the number of non-white dual-nationality footballers allowed to play for France's representative youth teams.

Blanc was cleared of wrongdoing by the FFF, but the case highlighted the extent to which French football had fallen short of the ideals of racial harmony encapsulated by the famous black-blanc-beur slogan attached to France's celebrated 1998 team.

Twenty years on from the 1998 triumph, France and Deschamps are once again preparing for a World Cup final with players whose roots extend right across the former French empire.

The country's unresolved social issues mean that glib associations between sporting success and societal integration are generally now avoided, but beyond France's borders, Les Bleus have become a symbol of Pan-African unity. When France take to the pitch to face Croatia in Moscow on Sunday, they will have not just the eyes of a nation upon them, but the eyes of a continent.

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