Rogers: France-England friendly a victory for all following terror attacks

The history of those who follow England’s national team is not especially glorious. Too often, patriotism has spilled over into violence, and the scourge of the height of hooliganism in the 1980s has not been forgotten. There has been boorishness, ignorant, xenophobic chanting, and on occasion, the booing of a rival’s national anthem.

How different Tuesday night was. Tens of thousands of English supporters spent the days leading up to their country’s friendly international against France at Wembley Stadium in their homes and schools and pubs and workplaces, practicing La Marseillaise, the iconic and beautiful French anthem, so that they could join in.

And so they did, with tones both guttural and sweet, both trained and raw, while bearing banners and flags with messages of hope and support for a neighbor suffering national tragedy.

Just a few days on from the terror attacks in Paris it was remarkable that the game went ahead at all, yet that was the decision made by by France’s soccer administrators and coaches and embraced by a group of players who understand their role in helping bring the country together.

It was an emotional night. For the past few days, Wembley’s famous arch was lit in the red, white and blue of the French flag. Match organizers broke with protocol, playing the home anthem of God Save The Queen first to give extra significance to the French version that followed.

Prince William was there, in a dual role as president of the Football Association and as a national figurehead, laying a wreath on the sideline along with the respective coaches, Roy Hodgson and Didier Deschamps.

Thousands of French fans turned out, waving their national flags and singing with pride throughout. English supporters sported T-shirts that paid tribute to Paris. The players stood shoulder to shoulder ahead of kickoff, first for a photo opportunity and a minute of silence.

It was a game with meaning far deeper than sports, yet a game still. England, perhaps unsurprisingly, had the clearer focus and was the better team on the night. Goals from teenager Dele Alli and captain Wayne Rooney gave England a 2-0 win, yet there were other moments that spoke louder. There were appearances from the substitutes by two men for whom the carnage was all too personal. Antoine Griezmann’s sister was among the fortunate to escape from the Bataclan theater, while the female cousin of midfielder Lassana Diarra was among the 129 who perished.

There was the generally high level of sportsmanship, the warm applause for both teams, the lack of gamesmanship that is so common in top level soccer.

Playing for a cause is a common theme in sports and so often it misses the point. It is not about the result. It is the participation that resonates most, the message to those who would wreak ill will, the continuation of life bearing some semblance to normalcy. Europe, sports and the fight against terror faces huge challenges, with no greater reminder needed than the cancellation of Germany’s match against the Netherlands due to a bomb threat.

That is a separate tale, albeit on a related theme. But what happened at Wembley was a step in the healing, every part of it, an overwhelming message of pride and defiance and togetherness.

And a victory, no matter what the scoreline read.

French brigadier-general to become deputy commander in British army

A French brigadier-general will be appointed a deputy commander of a British army division for the first time, the Ministry of Defence has said.

The move is part of an exchange programme aimed at strengthening ties between the two nations.

The as-yet-unnamed officer, who starts in April, will command the 1st (UK) Division when its commanding officer is on leave, MoD officials confirmed.

As part of the exchange, the British officer colonel Nick Nottingham will take up a similar role in the French army.

An army spokeswoman said: “These and the 17-plus posts that are exchanged between the French and British armies demonstrate the long-term commitment to providing security at home and abroad.”

The French officer will be one of two deputy divisional commanders. The appointment will be made in accordance with a 2010 treaty that aimed to foster closer military ties between France and the UK.

An army source told the Telegraph that the French soldier was unlikely to command British soldiers in the field on a foreign deployment in the near future.

The agreement was signed by the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron. It provides for the sharing and pooling of materials and equipment, including the building of joint military facilities, mutual access to each country’s defence markets, and industrial and technological cooperation.

Last year, an American brigadier-general was appointed to the deputy command of the 3rd (UK) Division. Speaking at the time, Michael Tarsa said it was an “honour” to be given the role.

There were about 60 French officers deployed across the whole of the British armed forces, including the 17 in the army, according to the Telegraph.

One senior officer said: “Whenever you deal with the Americans, because of their size, they are always the elephant and we are always the mouse. No matter how courteous they are, it’s very clear who is in charge.

“We’ve found working with the French, that they are a similar size to us, we’ve both had empires and we just seem to understand each other. It turns out the language barrier isn’t as important as we thought. It’s all about distance and scale.”

French Women Are Taking Over Soccer

“We have everything to prove,” Brigitte Henriques, the secretary-general of the French Football Federation (F.F.F.), said recently of France’s quest at the World Cup in Canada. They even have a hashtag, #objectifcanada.

This year’s favorites are a familiar bunch: the United States; Japan, the defending champions; Germany; teams from Scandinavia; and perhaps Brazil—nations that traditionally prize women’s soccer, or at least have solid track records at international competitions. France has historically not been a part of this group, but after a fourth-place finish in the 2011 World Cup, Les Bleues, as the national side is called, entered the tournament ranked No. 3 in FIFA’s global standings. They won their opening match on Tuesday, beating England 1-0.

Women’s soccer has been played in France for the better part of a century, but the sport was long stigmatized as being too masculine for women or girls. Such ideas date back to the sport’s nineteenth-century origins: it was a more violent game then, and was believed to be suited to forming strong men—future leaders of the republic—rather than developing overly muscled, unfeminine women. These attitudes cast a long shadow. Frenchwomen played soccer (in small numbers) and established a national-championship league, in 1919. Yet the sport remained a masculine domain, and this early effort faded by the nineteen-thirties.

The cultural changes that shook France during the sixties—the blurring of class distinctions and loosening of traditional gender norms; the youth protests of May, 1968, which nearly unseated President Charles de Gaulle—included a new outlook toward women’s sports. In the seventies, the F.F.F. reinstated women’s soccer—Les Bleues played their first official international match, a 4-0 win over the Netherlands, in 1971—but the game continued to combat long-held notions of who should, and should not, get to play. While the United States instituted its Title IX rules around this time to legally insure equal opportunity for male and female athletes, there was no such legislation in France, and the country took longer to invest in its women’s game. Without institutional and financial support, the women’s national team lagged far behind its counterparts in other countries. Les Bleues didn’t qualify for a major international tournament until the 1997 European Championship, and they didn’t reach the World Cup until 2003 (when they were eliminated in the group stage).

Years of lacklustre performances did not help the women’s team’s reputation at home, but national-team service did give a generation of young women players the opportunity to see how their sport was played and received in other countries. Henriques (then Brigitte Olive) played for France from 1988 through 1997 and travelled to the United States with the team. “It was always a dream for me to go there,” she said, because soccer was one of the top sports for girls. She recalled watching young American girls kicking around balls at stadiums before matches. “It is great to see that today in [France], it is the same.”

So, what changed?

The success of the men’s national team in the late nineties renewed popular interest in soccer; in particular, the team’s World Cup win in 1998 led to a spike in participation among French girls. The same year, the F.F.F. created a training center for young women at Clairefontaine, the federation’s national soccer center, where the best players could practice together. It helped to raise the athletic bar, and professional clubs with women’s teams, such as Olympic Lyonnais and Montpellier, subsequently founded youth academies for their young female players.

Noël Le Graët, who has been the F.F.F. president since 2011, has also offered support to the women’s game. After his election, he appointed female executives, including Henriques, to key posts throughout the federation. Under his administration, greater funding and resources have been devoted to the national team and to developing the women’s game at all levels, from the youth clubs to professional leagues. Henriques and the F.F.F. launched several campaigns to expand participation throughout the country, using phrases like “Mesdames, Franchissez La Barriere!” (“Ladies, Go Through the Barrier!”), which encourages women to join their local teams, and “Les Journées ‘rentrée du foot’” (“Return to Soccer Days”), timed for the end of summer holidays, to get girls to try the sport in the new school year.

But the major turning point for women’s soccer was the 2011 World Cup. Before that tournament, Henriques recalled, “it [wa]s like we didn’t exist. Nobody was talking about us in the media.” But the performance of Les Bleues that summer, and the increased coverage of the women’s game that came with their success, changed the situation. “When we came back in France, it was incredible,” she said. “People discovered that women’s [soccer] does exist in France and it was so surprising.”

“When our national team plays in our country, we have stadiums full, packed, of about twelve thousand to fifteen thousand spectators” Henriques said. While attendance is not as high as it is for the men’s team, which can attract as many as eighty thousand fans for marquee matches, it is a significant improvement from a decade ago, when barely thirteen hundred people turned out for women’s friendly games. “It is a big change for us for the people love our national team,” Henriques said. And while soccer fans in France have grown disenchanted with the men’s side in recent years—in a survey leading up to the 2014 World Cup, only twenty per cent of respondents said that they viewed the team positively—the women’s team remains relatively free from criticism. Today Les Bleues enjoy the highest popularity among all the women’s teams in France, according to study conducted late last year by Kantar Sport and published in the sports daily L’Équipe. Earlier this year, FIFA announced that France had been selected to host the Women’s World Cup in 2019.

The “World Cup effect” on women’s soccer has not yet faded. The F.F.F. counted 54,482 licensed female players in 2011. That number rose to 66,787, in 2013, and to 83,000, i 2015. Much of this owes to the victories of Les Bleues, increased media coverage of the team, and the opportunities that aspiring footballeuses now have to play in clubs and, for the top players, to train in one of the academies. According to Henriques, one of the most surprising trends is that, since 2011, the biggest area of growth has been among teen-age girls—a demographic that has long been difficult to retain. As the number of teen-agers playing soccer has increased, so has the level of play: in the past four years, France has won the U-17 World Cup and the U-19 UEFA European Championship.

The future is promising for women’s soccer in France. And hopes are high for this year’s World Cup. More people are watching than ever before, and the expectations for the team have never been higher. It is, Henriques said, “the moment for us to prove that our progress is not only for the friendly matches.”

Disenchantment in France With Fickle National Team

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 view of Les Bleus.

This is vastly different from attitudes in 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 in Brazil on Friday, is rooted in culture. French dissatisfaction with Les Bleus is an antisoccer backlash, fueled by the behavior of certain players and amplified by the news media. The team’s losing record since 2002 has contributed to the disillusionment, as have the country’s socioeconomic difficulties.

“Antisoccer 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 world. 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 Jérôme de Bontin, a former general manager of the Red Bulls and a former president of A.S. 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.-Étienne 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 Fernández — 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.”

Daniel Jeandupeux, a former professional player and coach, 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.

This was a problem in an age of increased news media scrutiny of soccer and its stars. The on- and off-field antics of individual players, including accusations of divalike behavior and charges of hiring under-age prostitutes, were magnified. This was considered un-French in a country that prized the private lives of public figures.

Yet any critique was muffled at the turn of the millennium. Les Bleus were adored; they were champions.

“The heroes became stars that nobody could scratch,” Jeandupeux said.

After 2002, Les Bleus were no longer untouchable. The team’s performance became politicized, and public opinion soured.

France has contended with a multitude of problems over the past decade, including high youth unemployment, unrest in the troubled suburbs and the continued rise of the far-right-wing National Front. These challenges were compounded by the global economic crisis.

At such times, Jeandupeux said, “differences are less acceptable” and “the public image of Les Bleus is influenced by racism when the team does not win.”

Soccer becomes a convenient scapegoat. But is the antisoccer backlash tied to racism?

Soccer historically assimilated players of different ethnic backgrounds. In the 1930s, Raoul Diagne and Larbi Benbarek, two non-Caucasians, played for France, the first European country to integrate its national team. For decades, Frenchmen of different races and beliefs contributed significantly to Les Bleus’ successes. Contending that racism affected the team’s image ignores this tradition.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago,” de Bontin said, “some of the negative debate about soccer could undoubtedly be attributed to racist sentiments.”

This is no longer the case, in large part because of the 1998 team’s popularity. Courtois and others emphasized that there was no racism among teammates, but many acknowledged that it existed within society at large.

The French antisoccer backlash is more a cultural reaction to the sport’s commercialization. It’s a response to certain players’ acting flagrantly un-French and the news media prism that scrutinizes such behavior. The record of Les Bleus made it easier to criticize soccer, the system and the players.

There are signs that the soccer bashing may be abating. When Les Bleus were backed into a corner against Ukraine during the qualifying playoffs in November, the French stood by them. At the Stade de France, where 15 years earlier a different generation of players made history, fans lustily cheered Les Bleus to a 3-0 victory.

The win helped revive a sense of optimism and gave the team a blank slate. France’s performance in Brazil will test the public’s willingness to re-embrace Les Bleus.

Correction: June 28, 2014
An article on June 20 about the roots of France’s disenchantment with its men’s national soccer team misstated the history of minorities who played for England’s national soccer team. Frank Soo, who was half Chinese, played for England in the 1940s; it is not the case that England “did not field a player of color until Viv Anderson in 1978.”

France Built The World’s Best Women’s Soccer Team And Still Lost

France Built The World's Best Women's Soccer Team And Still Lost

Not even a minute into last night’s highly-anticipated, criminally-premature title fight that was France vs. Germany, Les Bleues were off on one of their typical jaunts towards goal, one that exemplified everything that makes them such a special team.

Awaiting a long throw-in from their own half, French striker Eugénie Le Sommer muscled off a German defender at her back to fight for position. As the ball came to her, she lept in the air and nodded it on with the top of her head in the direction of Élodie Thomis. As ball was bouncing and a little behind the winger’s run, Thomis lifted her foot behind her and flipped the ball head with an inventive little flick using the back of her heel. At that point, she was unleashed.

Thomis tore down the flank, outracing Germany’s helpless left back Tabea Kemme, who didn’t have a prayer in heaven of keeping pace. With Thomis’s speed completely warping the back line, Le Sommer and Louisa Nécib sprinted into the center of the pitch almost completely unmarked. Thomis then lifted her head, saw her teammates in the box, and clipped in a perfect cross, all while moving nearly at the speed of light.

Nécib, a uniquely gifted creative genius in the women’s game, was best in position to finish the chance. She strode confidently onto the incoming ball, volleyed it coolly towards goal, only for it to fizz wide of the post and into the ad boards. After the shot she hopped in the air and brought her hands to her face, knowing that she’d just blown the haymaker she could’ve and probably should’ve landed so early in the bout, then collected herself and ran back toward her position.

In that move, France exhibited everything they and they alone had truly mastered at this World Cup. They are physically imposing, with the height and strength to jockey with defenders and win the ball; they have unrivaled athleticism, as seen primarily through Thomis’s Olympic speed (and I’m still confused how the German defenders all ended the match with their hamstrings still intact after trying to keep up with her); their technique is exquisite, as Thomis’s half-rainbow flick and Nécib’s well-taken but poorly-aimed volley showed; they are tactically astute (pressing high and implementing a high tempo, looking to push their advantage as quickly as possible), and are full of intelligent players making just the right runs to open space for others and present dangerous options that their visionary passers almost always see and reward. France have everything. And now they’re going home.

It’s a shame they weren’t able to capitalize on their shocking dominance over their only other real rival in terms of consistent impressive play at this tournament. The match was as great as we all thought it would be, but not in the way anyone predicted. What was supposed to be a wide-open affair between two great offenses trying to score one more goal than the other team was actually a steady beat-down by the French on the Germans. From that first chance and the subsequent 10-15 minutes, France played almost exclusively in the German half of the pitch, slicing through their opponent’s shaky defense, combining to create but then bungling chances on goal, and winning back possession almost as soon as it was lost with their harrowing team pressing. France had Germany looking like the U.S.: disjointed, unable to string together more than a couple passes, and, when under pressure, resorting to speculative long balls for the isolated forwards to attempt to coral.

France Built The World's Best Women's Soccer Team And Still Lost

While that opening period of French domination would subside, they were still in control for basically the entire rest of regulation. Whenever Germany looked to be growing into the game and created a shot or two on consecutive possessions, France came right back and reasserted themselves. The Germans will have nightmares about Thomis torching down that right wing, as well as Nécib—finally living up to her ability after a fairly anonymous World Cup up to that point—and her movement between the lines.

But, soccer being soccer, if you don’t mark spells of control with goals, you’re always at risk of getting dinged against the run of play. Nécib did eventually get one of the goals France had coming in the 64th minute, but a handball in the box gave Germany a penalty that Célia Šašić slotted home to level things 20 minutes later.

(Aside: the handball in the box rule sucks. As it stands, it’s ridiculously subjective. Besides the two extremes—a ball kicked or ricocheted onto an arm when there was no feasible way of preventing it, or a glaringly obvious Luis Suárez-style intentional one—there is no consistency between what is or isn’t a penalty. You can see why the call Germany benefited from was made, sure, but it was practically identical to another incident in the first half that wasn’t called and that would’ve given France a spot kick. Penalties are too important to be be almost purely subjective.)

France Built The World's Best Women's Soccer Team And Still Lost

France were pretty worn out by the time extra time rolled around, but still had the better opportunities to kill the game off before the dreaded penalty shootout. Towards the very end of open play, substitute Gaëtane Thiney had the ball on her foot and an open goal in front of her, but much like Nécib at the very beginning of the match, she fired wide. The match went to penalties, Germany won, and France and all women’s soccer fans will have to live with the fact that the most complete team in the entire tournament was knocked out in the quarterfinals.

The end result shouldn’t taint what France managed to build, though. What they were able to achieve all tournament—with moments of individual brilliance like this and this, spells of intricate, one- and two-touch combination play that makes you want to tear your hair out in joy like this and this, plus the athleticism, the technical and tactical intelligence that facilitated all their play in Canada—is where the sport is going. They are moving closer to that platonic ideal of a soccer super-team that we lamented the USWNT for seemingly drifting away from. France weren’t rewarded for what they’ve done this summer in the form of their first World Cup trophy, but future winners will almost certainly look a lot more like this team than any of the others still in the field.

Photos via Getty