There’s a festive spirit in France after its second World Cup final in 20 years. For the decisive game, fans had been glued to their sets, including at a Salvation Army shelter where several dozen migrants had watched the match.
“You can dream in France,” Youssef, a 25-year-old from Darfur, Sudan, told the France24 news agency. “If you’re the best, you can be on the team. That’s not true everywhere.” He was referring to the 17 players on the French team who are sons of immigrants. “[Kylian] Mbappé’s dad is from Cameroon and his mother is Algerian.”
In the second half after Paul Pogba (parents from Guinea) and Mbappé scored in quick succession, the room went wild—up and dancing, hugging, turning over their seats.
A group of women on one side of the room started up a chant: “Thank you, Pogba! Thank you, Mbappé!”
“We are all refugees from somewhere,” reflected Habib from Afghanistan, “but we live here. We’re for the place where we live.”
Close links between French and African soccer go back some 80 years. Senegalese Raoul Diagne played in the 1938 World Cup and later became a deputy in the French assembly, as well as the first soccer coach in independent Senegal.
Just Fontaine, whose tally of 13 goals in the 1958 finals remains a World Cup record, came from Morocco, and Zinedine Zidane, arguably the greatest French soccer player, was born in Marseille to Algerian parents.
He was the hero of France’s World Cup-winning team 20 years ago whose success was hailed as a powerful and inspiring rejection of racism in French society.
Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas in Austin, said the French 4 to 2 win over Croatia was “a victory for Africa and immigrants everywhere.”
Khaled Beydoun, author of the book “American Islamophobia,” took a less forgiving view, however, in an open letter to France on Twitter.
“Dear France,” he tweeted. “Congratulations on winning the World Cup. 80% of your team is African (so) cut out the racism and xenophobia. 50% of your team is Muslim (so) cut out the Islamophobia. Africans and Muslims delivered you a second World Cup. Now deliver them justice.”
He added, “You can’t celebrate and cheer immigrants and minorities on the football field and vilify them everywhere else off of it.”