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France’s aversion to its National Soccer Team

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Four years ago, Les Bleus, the French national soccer team, went on strike in South Africa. The incident capped the team’s self-destruction in the 2010 World Cup. In the aftermath, the players were called undereducated “PlayStation junkies” who were too individualistic to serve the nation.

Much has changed, yet today the French hesitate to re-embrace the team. A poll conducted for the magazine France Football found that only 20 percent of French people surveyed in late April had a positive image of Les Bleus. This is vastly different attitudes from 1998, when France won the World Cup and the team symbolized a bright future.

Why the French remain disenchanted with their team, which plays Switzerland on Friday, is rooted in culture. French dissatisfaction with Les Bleus is an anti-soccer backlash, fueled by the behavior of certain players and amplified by the news media. The team’s losing record since 2002 contributed to the nation’s disillusionment, as did the country’s continued socioeconomic difficulties.

“Anti-soccer backlash” sounds odd, but it explains much about the present attitude toward Les Bleus.
Sport in France is not held in as high esteem as the intellectual or academic worlds. This is a peculiar phenomenon for a country that produced Pierre de Coubertin (Olympics) and Jules Rimet (World Cup), forefathers of modern sports.

“The French have prejudice when it comes to sport,” said Jerome de Bontin, chairman of Rush Soccer. As a former general manger of the New York Red Bulls and former president of AS Monaco, de Bontin experienced soccer culture on both sides of the Atlantic. He explained that in France, professional soccer was long stigmatized as a working-class, sterile environment.

This began to change because of televised games and winning teams like St.-Etienne in the 1960s and 1970s. Soccer culture started to take root. The excitement around the 1980s Platini generation – anchored by Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez – stoked broader interest. It helped that Les Bleus were a winning team for the first time since their third-place finish at the 1958 World Cup.

The 1998 win legitimized French soccer and made it part of the cultural landscape. Today, soccer is the nation’s most popular sport. Yet, its rapid commercialization since 2000 refueled French prejudice. Labor issues and financial pressures contributed to a negative perception of soccer’s commercial success.

“It became pretty striking,” de Bontin said, “that you were better off being a successful actor or singer than a successful soccer player.”

The large salaries earned by young players were and remain contentious in a country proud of its socialist tradition. Laurent Courtois, who grew up and played professionally in France, acknowledged that “having 20-year-old kids winning fortunes doesn’t help” the image of soccer players.

Daniel Jeandupeux, a former professional player and coach in France and Switzerland, said the image of Les Bleus had deteriorated because some young players “do not always have the behavior best adapted to their new social status.”

Courtois agreed, saying that academics were often sacrificed for soccer. Consequently, young players did not have the space to mature out of the public eye.