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WORLD CUP

Boys from the banlieues: France football team ignites dreams in gritty estates

The success of France's new "Black-Blanc-Beur" generation in the 2018 World Cup is inspiring pride in the deprived estates or "banlieues" where many of the country's football players honed their game.

Boys from the banlieues: France football team ignites dreams in gritty estates
Photo: AFP

In a housing estate in the gritty northern Paris suburb of Bondy, Adama Wagui showed off the stack of trophies he has accumulated during his budding football career.

“Best goalkeeper AS Bondy 2016, best goalkeeper Vichy U17 tournament,” the tall 16-year-old with the shaved zig-zag footballer haircut said, reading 
aloud out the inscriptions on the cups that his parents keep on their bedside table.

Wagui's finest hour, however, may have been when he was called on to block shots from local wunderkind, star France striker Kylian Mbappe.

“It was difficult,” he says with a shy smile, “but sometimes I succeeded.”

As excitement builds at the prospect of Les Bleus taking home the World Cup, 20 years after their win on home soil, their success is a source of pride in the deprived estates or “banlieues” where many of France's players honed their game.

Of the 23 players in the French squad, around two-thirds are of Arab or African descent, drawing comparisons with the mythologised “Black-Blanc-Beur” (Black-White-Arab) team of 1998.

Their legend looms large over the tower blocks that dominate the skyline of northeast Paris.

“Nowadays young people are proud to say they come from Bondy,” Adama's Senegalese-born father of seven Issa said.





'They live for football'

Standing on the pitch at AS Bondy's home ground, coach Antonio Riccardi recalls the almost freakish talent of a young Mbappe, slaloming Maradona-style past five defenders to ram a ball into the back of the net. 

“The best players come out of these neighbourhoods because the kids here are always out kicking a ball,” Riccardi told AFP. “They live for football, whether at school or on the estate.”

Like Paris Saint-Germain's Mbappe, whose parents have Cameroonian and Algerian roots, many were born into immigrant families.

But few make it out of the “banlieues”, trapped in a cycle of poverty, discrimination and underachievement that President Emmanuel Macron has compared to being “under house arrest” and former prime minister Manuel Valls criticised in 2015 as “apartheid”.

“The only way out to make it here is in sport or rap,” said Ismail Gencel, the owner of a restaurant in Bondy.

While Mbappe, born five months after France's 1998 victory, dreams of joining the pantheon of World Cup winners, Adama dreams about following in his footsteps, out of Bondy into the big league.

The task of managing his expectations falls to his coaches.

“We tell them there is only one Messi, only one Ronaldo, only one Mbappe, and that the road to success cuts through school,” said Jeremy Mimouni, another coach at AS Bondy.





Love-hate relationship

Because there is only one Mbappe, his 50,000-strong hometown, which extends on either side of a motorway linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport, is intent on capitalising on his renown.

“Bondy, the town where anything is possible,” read a giant poster of the player that was pasted across a block of flats overlooking the motorway after 
he was signed by PSG last year.

Football aside it does not always feel that way, however.

Unemployment in the region where Bondy is situated is running at 11.8 percent, compared to 7.1 percent in Paris.

Weeds push up through the pavement outside the block of flats where the Wagui family lives and all the kids chasing a football around a nearby 
basketball court are black, highlighting the sense of segregation between central Paris and its suburbs.



'Enchanted interlude' 

But if football does hold up a mirror to French society, the relationship between the public and the national team has not always been a happy one.

Players from the suburbs were being blamed for a mutiny at the 2010 tournament in South Africa, which ended with France crashing out in the first round. 

The slurs against some of the heroes of the “banlieues”, such as striker Nicolas Anelka, left scars in places like Bondy.

Another World Cup win for a multi-ethnic team, coming as polls show French attitudes towards migrants hardening, “would create some positive momentum and unite people for a while,” Riccardi said.

“But would it last?” he wondered.

History suggests not.

Four years after France's 1998 win the myth of a united “Black-Blanc-Beur” country exploded when far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen grabbed the runner-up spot behind Jacques Chirac in presidential elections.

The win, historian Yvan Gastaut concluded in a 2007 article about immigration and football, had led to nothing more than an “enchanted interlude”.

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FOOTBALL

France plans to keep growing women’s game after World Cup disappointment

France faces the challenge of continuing to develop women's football after the bitter disappointment of elimination from the World Cup by the United States.

France plans to keep growing women's game after World Cup disappointment
France players after the defeat against USA. Photo: AFP

“Back to Earth” was how sports daily L'Equipe put it after the host nation lost 2-1 to the holders in a quarter-final played out before a feverish crowd in Paris.

L'Equipe talked of “the disappointment of a shattered adventure” because coach Corinne Diacre's team had dreamt of emulating the men, World Cup winners in Russia last year and also winners as hosts in 1998.

The team had been desperate to make it to Lyon, where the semi-finals and final will be played and where seven of those who featured for France on Friday play their club football for Europe's top side.

Instead, France find themselves out of a fifth straight major tournament in the quarter-finals. To rub salt into the wounds, Friday's defeat had the knock-on effect of denying them a place at next year's Olympics.

Diacre had been set the objective of reaching the final, which always looked a daunting challenge once the draw raised the likelihood of an early meeting with the USA.

Amid the dejection on Friday, Diacre stated her wish to continue, and on Saturday French Football Federation (FFF) President Noel Le Graet confirmed she would stay.

“She will be in charge until the end of her contract, if not longer,” Le Graet told AFP.

That means until Euro 2021 in England at least, and the aim in France is to keep developing the women's game to give them a chance of one day going all the way.

The FFF hope the number of registered female players will reach 200,000 next year, an increase of almost 10 percent from present figures, but far from the two million registered male players.

They have also promised to invest 15 million euros into a post-World Cup “legacy” fund.

The interest in the women's game is there, as shown by television audiences during the World Cup, with 11.8 million watching the USA game on terrestrial TV.

However, translating that to an increased following in the women's domestic league will be a bigger challenge.

France games have drawn sell-out crowds at the World Cup, but in general attendances in domestic competition are modest at best, even if almost 26,000 saw powerhouses Lyon beat closest rivals Paris Saint-Germain earlier this year.

“We cannot go from so much enthusiasm now to league matches on poor pitches with only 120 fans,” said Le Graet. “We all need to make an effort and we will.”

Matches are televised, but like elsewhere income remains light years from rights deals in the men's game — a new sponsorship contract for the 12-club top flight with chemicals company Arkema is worth one million euros per season for three years.

Average salaries are reportedly around 3,500 euros per month, although stars like Amandine Henry and Wendie Renard are believed to earn almost 10 times that at Lyon, who have won the Champions League in the last four years. Again, those sums are dwarfed by the wages often on offer to the men.

“We need to keep putting money in, keep professionalising, because other countries are doing it and maybe that's why they are ahead of us,” warned Lyon and France forward Eugenie Le Sommer.

“We have a good league but unfortunately not every team is professional.

“There are countries who are ahead of us and we must catch up. Even Spain are putting lots of money in and we need to make sure we are not left behind.”

READ ALSO: France coach laments 'failure' as hosts knocked out of World Cup

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