Saturday 16 December 2017

James Lawton: Pogba can lead France back to the spirit of '98

Paul Pogba in action for France at Euro 2016
Paul Pogba in action for France at Euro 2016
James Lawton

James Lawton

They ran out of Scotch - and Irish - in Ernest Hemingway's old haunt Harry's Bar and there was said to be more than a million in the environs of the Champs Elysees on a summer's night in 1998 after France won their only World Cup with victory over Brazil.

Eighteen years is not such a long time but as the Euros begin to unfold today with security virtually on a war footing - and the national team bedevilled by charges of racism - you can only pine for what now seems like the ancient sweetness of those celebrations, and the sense that football had not only delighted a great nation but also made it better.

What chance such a feat over the next few weeks as France battens down against the threat of terrorist attack?

And former national hero Michel Platini, he of the dodgy Fifa payment, frets over the shadows to his grandiose plan to stage the biggest and most profitable European Championship finals of all time?

The odds have not exactly shortened over the last troubled, bloody year, but then it is also true that from time to time sport does manage to rise to a difficult occasion.

It certainly did in the Berlin Olympics when Jesse Owens, a share-cropper's son, smashed Hitler's Master Race theories with his gold medals.

It did in 2007 when war-shattered Iraq won the Asian Cup and the picture of a smiling young flag-bedecked fan was beamed around the world.

Maybe it should also be remembered that the World Cup of 1998 had a few obstacles to surmount before it became such a triumph for the spirit of the nation.

The French team was targeted by the more rabid sections of the right for its inclusion of 'non-white' players of colonial heritage like Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and young Patrick Vieira - and the eventual star of the tournament, Zinedine Zidane.

Some echoes of that time have been heard this year with the exclusion of players like Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri, all of whom have Muslim backgrounds.

The French football authorities and manager Didier Deschamps insist the charges are groundless and have nothing to do with the climate created by terrorist outrages in Paris.

Yet there could still be another echo of 1998 if France escapes its worst fears for both terrorism and racial division.

Off the field the security effort is massive; on it, France will again rely hugely on the influence of players from outside of an older established French society.

Paul Pogba is France's best hope of a convincing tournament in a midfield role in which he has grown hugely in Juventus' surge to another Serie A title. His parents came to France from the African colony of Guinea.

Anthony Martial, who has produced moments of sensational finishing for Manchester United, has an aplomb which could well see him finish the tournament alongside Atletico Madrid striker - and entirely homegrown - Antoine Griezmann.

Such a partnership would surely capture the full range of the French cultural spectrum.

Griezmann is a son of Burgundy and the old wine town of Macon. Martial's ancestry goes back to the Caribbean colonial possession of Guadalupe.

If Euro 2016 does indeed bring fearless crowds into the streets the cries are likely be Vive la France - and, perhaps, Vive La Difference.

Of course there are scores of football dramas to be played out in the wake of the tournament opener against Romania at the Stade De France tonight but undoubtedly a huge and perhaps tone-setting exercise comes in the sprawling working class suburb of St-Denis.

It is a relatively undemanding step for the host team but there is reason enough for the entire European game to hold its breath.

The World Cup of 1998 had to survive the still vicious threat of hooliganism and anyone who was in the old port of Marseilles before England's opening game with Tunisia will recall how perilous the problem became. The streets were filled with tear gas as the English fans, after provoking the local Tunisian population, went on riot. Then, it seemed, the virus of hooliganism would never be beaten.

Now, of course, the great threat is from without. It means that right up to the final back at Stade de France on July 10 at least one eye will inevitably be trained on the terraces and the eves of the stadia as much as the field.

The football carries enough intrigue, and potential spectacle, to lull some of the worst of the fears and it is as always: if sport, and for some time the world has accepted the game, as its most compelling form, can sometimes seem a fragile counterpoint it also has a superb capacity to divert.

So where do we do look for the winners, the team to find their moment, their expression, while wider fears for the tournament be occurring on another planet?

Spain - who played so wonderfully to win the last two tournaments in Vienna and Kiev - are desperate to redeem their shocking failure in the World Cup while no team steels itself better for the great occasions and when you bet against them you tend to utter a silent apology.

However, we know what result on July 10 will bring most joy, most sense of a triumph of sport over the worst that the world can bring.

It is of France, with a young and brilliant black man at its heart, victorious on the field and unscathed off it.

Then we will remember how it was along the Champs Elysees 18 years ago - and how it is to awake with the sense that all is, and however precariously, still well.

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