Recent years have not been kind to France. It has suffered the brunt of Europe’s recent struggles with terrorist violence. Despite the promises of President Emmanuel Macron, the unemployment rate remains high, and culture wars, mostly over immigration and Islam, have continued to polarize an already embittered electorate.
But then came Sunday night, when the soccer team took home the world title for the first time since 1998.
This was a moment that all of France felt deeply, but it was particularly emotional in Bondy, a low-income community that belongs to the galaxy of suburbs only a short train ride from Paris, one of the richest cities in the world. Bondy is the home of Kylian Mbappe, 19, the breakout star of the team.
Like many Parisian suburbs, or “banlieues,” Bondy is a community populated heavily with immigrants and their descendants, the kind of place that French and especially foreign media tend to portray as depressed and isolated, breeding grounds of petty crime and, most recently, hotbeds of terrorism. The phrase many use to describe these suburbs is “territories lost to the Republic,” which no longer — or at least no longer wish to — belong to France and its universalist values.
But the 2018 World Cup has changed that narrative, at least for now. In a country at times obsessed with national identity, France’s team is a decidedly multicultural squad, presenting an image of a diverse nation that has become a national success story, if not a fairy tale.
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Nowhere was that clearer than in Bondy, where a mural of Mbappe’s face hangs high over a highway, the pride of a nation but especially of this particular community, the place where he was born and raised. “Welcome to the city of possibilities,” that mural reads.
Disappointment in Croatia
For Croatians, the World Cup final was easily the most significant sporting event in the country’s 27 years of independence. But the national team’s four-week joyride ended with a painful second half in which the outcome became increasingly inevitable.
With tens of thousands packed into Zagreb’s central plaza, the roaring stopped. The singing stopped. People grabbed their hair and lit cigarettes. Boyfriends hugged girlfriends. The main noise came from speakers next to a jumbo screen — broadcasting the roar of a stadium 1,200 miles away.
“Imagine you’re a little boy who gets a puppy — a beautiful golden retriever,” said Mihael Stanic, 28, a mechanical engineer. “And then the puppy dies two days later. That’s how I feel.”
But even in defeat, Croatians managed to summon one final celebration — their toast to a team that represented the least populous country to make the finals since 1950.
As the final seconds ticked away, with Croatians packed into the main square and dozens of cafes, fans summoned a polite applause saluting the team. Then, a minute later, they tried again, this time with more spirit. Then, the cheer turned into a roar. As France’s players celebrated, a chant echoed off the buildings in downtown Zagreb: “We, Croatia! We, Croatia!”
“We are still going to party all night,” said Damir Babic, 29, sharing a cafe table with Stanic. “We are second in the world.”
In the hours after the match, Croatians stayed outside, singing songs and making plans to come back downtown Monday, when the team was scheduled to return for a ceremony that could draw 100,000.
During the past few days, Zagreb’s population has swelled with Croatians from other parts of the country and from abroad. People with Croatian heritage have flown into Zagreb from across the world to take part in what they say is the country’s most meaningful moment since the end of the war in 1995.
“I saw Croatian national pride globally, and it’s converging here,” said Draz Vukojevic, 51, a Canadian who left Croatia in 1973 with his parents and didn’t return until Sunday morning, when he landed after a red-eye from Toronto.
'Just like us'
The French national football team has long been caught up in the discussion over national identity and especially racial diversity.
Previous iterations of the team were attacked for being too multicultural, mostly by far-right hard-liners such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, who maintained that dark-skinned players were somehow less French and did not know the words to the national anthem. This year, there was also a bit of controversy when some supporters in Africa heralded the French team as an African team, given the number of players with ethnic origins in that continent. Mbappe, for instance, was born in France to parents of Cameroonian and Algerian origin.
On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered inside a Bondy stadium to watch the final match, broadcast live from Moscow. Children and adults alike had painted their faces with the famed tricolor, France’s blue, red and white flag. Some were draped in the flag; others wore jerseys emblazoned with the names and numbers of their favorite players. The crowd erupted in raucous cheers each time France scored.
But here in Bondy, it was Mbappe most people had come to celebrate.
Binguisse Traore, 21, was wrapped in a French flag and wearing large sunglasses that bore the flag’s colors on the frames. He came early and was seated in the front row of the crowd, closest to the screen.
“He’s a young man from Bondy, just like us,” Traore said, adding that he knew Mbappe when they were children in the area. “Frankly, Mbappe is an idol for us. We hope to become like him. It’s a town where everyone waits to have a life like Mbappe.”
Moussa Khoma, 27, a friend of Traore’s, pulled out his iPhone and showed a Facebook photo of himself and Mbappe on a childhood soccer team in Bondy. “He’s from here,” Khoma said, pointing to Mbappe’s face, in the corner of the screen. He noted that because of their age difference, Mbappe had merely trained with them for a while.
There was also what Mbappe — and the team in general — had come to represent for so many.
“It represents France well, in the spirit,” said Mélodie Goinga, 19, a lifelong resident of Bondy too young to remember the 1998 victory. “Especially in terms of diversity.” Goinga wore a veil, banned in certain areas of French public life as an affront to the national ideal of secularism. But her cheeks were painted with the tricolor.
For Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist and activist who writes often about race in French public life, the widespread support for the French team represents an important shift in public opinion, however long it lasts. The 2018 World Cup would have been a French victory even in defeat, she said.
“It’s a victory because at the end of the day, it shows that sometimes the people who are rejected belong,” Diallo said. “That’s changed the atmosphere for a couple of days, at least.”
Harlan reported from Zagreb.