DOHA: When Adrien Rabiot, who was not at full fitness after his bout of flu yet plugged the holes in the French midfield all evening in the final, was taken off four minutes from time and replaced by Youssouf Fofana, it marked a strange moment in the French line-up, and football’s history.
Because, with the exception of their captain Hugo Lloris in goal, all other French players on the field were black.
It was probably the first such occurrence in a World Cup, and a final at that. No African team has played at this top-most level of the game, yet France were carrying a unique marker for race and equality, even if it was purely on footballing terms.
Apart from Argentina‘s passion spilling over and Messi‘s epic footballing journey finding completion in a World Cup win, another thing which stood out in the roller-coaster epic of Sunday’s final was France football’s tremendous depth.
Asked about the future, their coach Didier Deschamps was unperturbed. “We have great strength in depth. Not worried about the future,” he would say. It would not be the hyperbole of a beaten coach trying to distract us, but a statement of fact.
Even before the first-half was over, Deschamps substituted two senior players in Olivier Giroud and Ousmane Dembele. It looked like the hand of a defeated coach, throwing in the towel as Argentina appeared to be cruising with a two-goal lead.
Macron congratulates Messi, consoles Mbappe
Then the second set of substitutions, in the 70th minute – Camavinga and Kingsley Coman for a subdued and largely ineffective Theo Hernandez and Antoine Griezmann, and thereshuffling of the formation – was genius. France roared back into the game almost immediately, setting up a finale for the ages.
The fear remains how the shrill right-wing in France will react to the close defeat that the Les Bleus eventually suffered.
Indeed, in the build-up to the final, there were those would point out the origins of each player in starting line-up – even the white Griezmann, who is of Portuguese descent – claiming that they were not French enough. This was another blow to the French idea of ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’ as is enshrined in their founding principles.
And this despite the national team being one of the most complete in the modern game, brimming with talented third-generation immigrants from France’s African colonies, players who were all born in France and learnt their football in the arrondissements of Paris.
🇫🇷 Kylian Mbappé’s Records at the FIFA World Cup;⚽️ 12 goals in 14 World Cup games, the same record as Pele.🔝 6… https://t.co/GHPkE4V227
— FIFA World Cup Stats (@alimo_philip) 1671501793000
Leading them is the frighteningly talented Kylian Mbappe. His fantastic hat-trick in the final notwithstanding – the second goal was an unbelievable piece of balance and execution that defied all basic tenets of shot-making – Mbappe has also emerged as the global face of his race. It is a fervent embrace of the star by a community in dire need of a hero as racism rises across the world, fuelled by the rise of rightwing majoritarianism.
Barely 24 – he celebrates his birthday on Tuesday – Mbappe’s rather indifferent treatment of French president Emmanuel Macron as the premier offered his commiserations on the Lusail turf afterwards was a cold-shoulder in full glare of the world.
🔥This is the 1st time in 52 years that 2 players were directly involved in 10+ goals at the FIFA World Cup;🏟️ 197… https://t.co/fk96RqHuQ2
— FIFA World Cup Stats (@alimo_philip) 1671460112000
It made the front pages of the world’s newspapers the next morning, an unmissable inset finding elbow-room in the splash of Argentina’s blue and yellow. Whether it was deep personal disappointment and fatigue at having come so close, or simply a rejection of things Macron stands for, like using Les Bleus as a vehicle for his propaganda, many social theorists and political analysts immediately saw it as an image of defiance.
Here was the foremost star of the world game almost seeing through his country’s president. “Macron, miles offside,” a section of the French media headlined their opinion on his visit to the French dressing room to offer a pep-talk, and before that, to be seen on the podium as Qatar and FIFA gave out the final prizes.
Merci Thousands of fans gathered in Paris to welcome @equipedefrance home 🇫🇷 #FIFAWorldCup #Qatar2022 https://t.co/NY3uiDlAi3
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) 1671501717000
Things were not always this frosty between Mbappe and Macron. The most marketable footballer on the planet at the moment, Mbappe had a protracted, well-documented saga involving his transfer to Real Madrid, which eventually fell through. Many believed the last-minute back-track was due to a gentle tug back by Macron himself and pressure from Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who is chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, the owners of Paris Saint Germain, his club that subsequently bent all the rules to give him unheard of influence and control.
Macron even had to issue a statement saying that he had only advised Mbappe informally to stay back in France. “I merely advised him, in a totally informal way, to remain in France. I believe it is my responsibility, as president, to defend the country when asked in an informal and friendly manner,” he would state. Mbappe would also agree that he received “good advice”.
A 𝒃𝒆𝒂𝒖𝒕𝒊𝒇𝒖𝒍 𝒎𝒐𝒎𝒆𝒏𝒕 to close this 𝒃𝒆𝒂𝒖𝒕𝒊𝒇𝒖𝒍 𝒂𝒅𝒗𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆 🙌💙#FiersdetreBleus https://t.co/f9UQdXaZXG
— French Team ⭐⭐ (@FrenchTeam) 1671492199000
Whatever the current status of the two French personalities, what has clearly emerged is the unique standing of the star of Cameroonian-Algerian parentage.
Mbappe and his brand of football – explosive, error-free and supremely athletic – has the capacity to change the way the game will be played forever. The market realizes this, and this is always going to be a tricky marriage given the pressures and demands of wealth and the innate need to be socially and politically conscious.
Sharing is caring 🤩#FiersdetreBleus https://t.co/8PigsR05Rr
— French Team ⭐⭐ (@FrenchTeam) 1671489022000
It is this prodigious talent and unimaginable potential that he carries that makes Mbappe the face of his race. In Doha on Sunday, alongwith Messi, he was being touted as the principal employee of the state. Also, on Sunday, alongside Messi, he effortlessly soared over all those trappings, and into a realm that can be only his, and that of his race.