Leboeuf: EURO 2016 is not going to change the face of France

"(By winning the 1998 FIFA World Cup) I guess we didn’t change anything about our social problems. But we made people very happy... we made them proud of being French. We had a team that could win. But that’s it. It didn’t change anything," says the former French central-defender, Frank Leboeuf.

France's manager Didier Deschamps (centre) watches his players train ahead of the team's EURO 2016 Group A match against Albania. Deschamps, according to Leboeuf, is anything but racist.   -  Getty Images

Zinedine Zidane, the Real Madrid coach, with the trophy after guiding his team to victory against Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.   -  Getty Images

Frank Leboeuf famously replaced a suspended Laurent Blanc in the final of the 1998 FIFA World Cup and put in a remarkable shift, as France pulled off a historic triumph on home soil. Two years later, the centre-back was again part of a French squad that conquered the European Championships. In the warm afterglow of these twin successes, it was tempting to believe that France had turned a corner as a nation, football helping integrate the country’s immigrant populations.

 

But it was a false dawn. In 2001, Leboeuf was on the pitch when a friendly between France and Algeria was abandoned after dozens of fans invaded the field, exposing ethnic fault lines. La Marseillaise was booed and Zinedine Zidane — a player of Algerian descent and a National hero — faced vitriolic verbal abuse.

As France hosts the European Championships in the shadow of last year’s terrorist attacks, Leboeuf, in a candid, eloquent interview with Sportstar, discusses what this tournament means to the nation.

The 48-year-old, an analyst on ESPN FC at the EURO 2016, also casts his mind back to France 98, dismisses the allegations of racism made against Didier Deschamps, and speaks of France’s chances of success.

The excerpts:

Question: Let’s start with the 1998 World Cup. What did that tournament do to France as a nation?

Answer: I guess we didn’t change anything about our social problems. But we made people very happy. It’s been 18 years since we won it, and every day when I meet someone I don’t know they say, ‘Thank you’. They don’t say ‘Well done’, but ‘Thank you’. Because we had had a beautiful summer and we made them proud of being French. We had a team that could win. But that’s it. It didn’t change anything.

That French team had players from various cultural backgrounds. What was the spirit in the side like?

You know, everybody has a background in France. We’ve been invaded for the whole of our history. Therefore, everybody has a little bit of blood of some other country. It doesn’t change anything for me. If people want to see racism at some point in France, it’s going to be stupid because we’ve been invaded from everywhere and our blood is not only French.

There was talk after France 98 that the tournament had helped the nation integrate its immigrant populations. You have said that’s not the case. But still, were you surprised by the behaviour of the crowd during that 2001 friendly against Algeria? Did it surprise you that such emotions prevailed even after the France 98 and Euro 2000 successes?

In 2001, that game was just a month after 9/11. Everybody was shocked. It was a political game. The match should have been postponed or cancelled. We felt that something could have happened. It was stupid people who entered the field of play. Everybody was warned that in case we were winning more than 3-0, the field would have been invaded. The match should’ve been cancelled. It was too tricky after 9/11 to organise a game like that.

You were on the pitch that day. As players, did you feel let down or disappointed that this — the chants directed at Zinedine Zidane — could happen in your own country?

Of course. It was dangerous for us. It was a shame for us to see the game stopped because of people invading the field. But what could we have done? Nothing. We were sad and ashamed.

Recently, the omission of Karim Benzema from the National team has stirred up some controversy. Eric Cantona has openly said the player was left out because of his race. Benzema himself has said Deschamps has “bowed to racist elements in France”. What is your view on the matter?

 

Benzema was not left out because of his race. I know Didier Deschamps very well. And he’s anything but racist. His best friend is Marcel Desailly, and Marcel is black. Another of his best friends is Zinedine Zidane, and Zidane’s family comes from Algeria. It’s a pity that people can make comments like that when it’s completely untrue. I don’t want to talk too much about that because for me it’s a non-event.

From a football point of view, do you think France has an adequate replacement for Benzema?

I always believe that nobody is irreplaceable. There are people in life who are irreplaceable, but nobody on a football field. Benzema is a fantastic player, one of the best strikers in the world. But he had to face a justice problem and he couldn’t be in the squad. The question was: are Giroud and Gignac good enough? And Giroud scored eight goals in eight games going into the tournament. So we’re quite happy with that.

Dimitri Payet was in tears after he scored in the opening game. You would know this from personal experience — what is the pressure of playing in a tournament on home soil like?

It’s a huge event. We are facing many problems in France with terrorism and also the floods, the strikes, and people having problems finding jobs. The economy is not very good. It can be a fantastic time for French people to cheer up a little bit. Payet is showing us the way.

You mentioned the terrorist attacks. Last year, we saw the attacks on the Stade de France during the friendly against Germany. In that context, what does this tournament mean to the nation?

This is a time where we can forget about everything and enjoy ourselves. We know that maybe we can face a terrorist attack during the tournament. We just pray that it doesn’t happen and that people can enjoy the beginning of the summer. Again, this tournament is not going to change the face of France. It’s just a little time where we try to forget our problems and enjoy the football.

Was building team spirit a hard thing to do, given the disharmony in the side in recent years?

It’s not about having the best players; it’s about building a squad. And that was the main task for Didier Deschamps. He knew that after Laurent Blanc, he had to do better. He worked hard to make sure that he wouldn’t take the best players necessarily, but those players who were ready to fight for each other. That was it.

Another former team-mate of yours, Zidane, coached Real Madrid to European success. What do you make of his work as a coach? When you were playing alongside him, did you think of him as a potential European Cup-winning coach?

Actually, I was very surprised when he said that he wanted to be a coach. He never talked about that and I never imagined he would be a Champions League-winning coach. I’m surprised but very happy for him. He’s done well. But I want to wait till next season for him to have a complete year as a coach and see how his tactics will be and if he can win again. So far so good, but we know from Roberto di Matteo at Chelsea that winning the Champions League is sometimes not enough to guarantee you a career.