World Cup Kickoff: The Irony of Looking Backward to Celebrate the Future

I’m back from a sports week in France ahead of the World Cup and am struck by the irony of nostalgia for the past—in this case, 1998—which very much celebrated the future.


Twenty years ago, France welcomed the world as host for the 16th FIFA World Cup. In a way, it was a homecoming of sorts for the tournament instigated by Frenchman Jules Rimet in 1930. Although the country last hosted the competition in 1938, Les Bleus (known around mid-century as Les Tricolores) had their best World Cup appearances postwar: third place in 1958 and 1986, and fourth place in 1982. Players like Just Fontaine, Raymond Kopa, and the 1980s carré magique of Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, Luiz Fernández, and Jean Tigana were well-known to French and global football fans, but heading into 1998, the one contemporary French player that most of the English-speaking footballing public knew of was Eric Cantona.


The Summer of 1998 changed that in spectacular fashion. The improbable exploits of Les Bleus as they clinched the trophy made household names out of Lillian Thuram, Zinédine Zidane and the team’s other “heroes.” The country fêted a black-blanc-beur future, one that embraced a multi-ethnic population as the key ingredient for a successful twenty-first century.

Yet, France’s past wasn’t fully in the rearview mirror. The national team became shorthand for social angst, economic anxiety, xenophobia, racism, and more as football moved into an era of heavy commercialization and politicization after that joyous summer. Particularly when the team failed to continue a winning tradition after its 2000 European Championship victory. The sex scandals and flashy bling-bling lifestyle of certain footballers did little to endear the public to the sport’s on-pitch warriors and national conversations eviscerated players, particularly after 2005. I’ve written in depth about this for The New York Times and Soccer & Society (and here in French), and won’t rehash it here.


But it’s important background to understand what the 2018 World Cup and remembrances of the 1998 win mean today. For the past week, French public television has run a series of documentaries reflecting on the twentieth anniversary while newspapers and magazines have articles ad infinitum on the topic. And the main focal points are not the technical aspects of how the team won; rather, the discourse centers on how the tournament’s ultimate outcome and immediate aftermath gave hope for a positive French future, one that has seemed rather allusive until the election of Emmanuel Macron last year.

Perhaps that’s a sense of hope heading into this World Cup. Despite the general pessimism over the geopolitics involved in Russia 2018, there’s a certain buzz in the air around the City of Light this month. It’s an optimism noticeably absent before Brazil 2014, one carefully rebuilt one step at a time by two heroes of 1998, Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps, who have led the reimaging and rebuilding of Les Bleus following the disaster of South Africa 2010. It’s an optimism symbolized by how football and sport rallied the nation together in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. And it’s an optimism reinforced by the women’s national team, Les Bleues, Olympique Lyonnais féminin, and the French Football Federation ahead of next year’s World Cup in France. Ironically, celebrating the anniversary of an event that idealized a fabled future is sparking a certain nostalgia while also a return to a forward-thinking mindset.