Wednesday

Eric & Charlie

By Andy Martin  |  25 Feb 2015

Back in June 1998, author and university professor Andy Martin was lucky enough to be taking his seat in the Stade de France, ahead of what was to become one of the most memorable nights in the country’s modern history. Two goals from the head of Zinédine Zidane and another from the boot of a ponytailed Emmanuel Petit would send France into raptures, flares illuminating the cobbles of Champs-Elysées through the night after an improbable victory against a Brazil side which, though Ronaldo-less, were still clear favourites to once again take home the Jules Rimet.

In the aftermath, images of France’s multi-ethnic, world-conquering team were beamed around the globe. A team comprising Zidane, Desailly and Deschamps were lauded by the political elite as proof of the country’s immigration policy come good; a utopian vision of eleven players, united under the French flag and the secular values it stands for, working together in pursuit of a common goal.

It was merely a brief interlude of hope, however, sandwiched between two healthy slices of scepticism. In time, the government’s hollow rhetoric would come to be seen for what it was – transparent, if understandable, political opportunism. The harmonious vision of France it portrayed had certainly been exposed as a myth long before last month’s events at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris’ 10th arrondissement.

What is often forgotten, though, is that Le Mondial had already come in for a barrage of criticism prior to its arrival in France, as Martin explains…

Eric Cantona, immortalised by that flying karate kick all of 20 years ago, got his real comeuppance by being kicked out of the French national team. He had already been disciplined for referring to a previous manager as a ‘bag of shit’, un sac à merde. Perhaps it was with that in mind that Aimé Jacquet dropped him for Euro ’96 and proceeded to leave him out in the cold. Cantona, Manchester United’s number seven and one of the greatest players in England, was deemed to be too much of a lone wolf and didn’t fit the austere philosophy of Jacquet. Of course, the fact that Les Bleus went on to win the World Cup in 1998 has meant that that decision, absurd though it was, has all but been forgotten.

Cantona did, however, play a role – almost in revenge – in 1998. He was all over Paris and larger than life. He was the face of Nike. Adidas had positioned themselves as the authorised suppliers to Le Mondial, but Nike even more shrewdly claimed the glamour and potency of the unauthorised niche. And their ad campaign was similarly subversive.

Capitalising on the shortfall between supply and demand for match tickets, Nike established a so-called ‘Republic of Sport’ on the wide, open concrete steps of La Défense with a giant screen and attendant hoop-la. But they got massive media attention and a kind of reluctant respect among the Parisian intelligentsia for their brazen political incorrectness.

The shaven-headed Cantona was depicted as some kind of fascist dictator à la Mussolini. The posters adopted a neo-Constructivist idiom, drawing on the virile, muscular, marshall style that was taken up by fascism and communism alike in the 1930s. As if Paris were in the grip of some new totalitarian mentality, the posters were emblazoned with such exhortations as, “Young People Of The World, Football Is Calling You. Join Us”. The campaign was successful and controversial; unsurprising, then, that it was ultimately withdrawn to be replaced by something bland and forgettable.

Perhaps inspired by Nike, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo did for the World Cup what it has more recently – and famously – done for Islam. In a series of cartoons, it revisited France’s own fascist war-time experience, blending images of Le Mondial with torture and oppression and, most memorably, re-casting the French national stadium as the new Nuremberg, together with a Führer-style referee, a baying mob, and Nazi paraphernalia.

The irony was that a psychologist friend who had been studying the collective psychology of Le Mondial stoutly maintained that the French bid to stage the World Cup had been made with a view to forgetting or erasing the distant memory of Hitler in Paris. And now it was being brought back yet again, with football boots on, by cunning advertising execs and lampooning cartoonists. Just as in England, the sound advice, ‘Don’t mention the war’, was never going to be taken too seriously.

At the time, in the midst of the great party that is the World Cup, I thought that those fascist allusions were a joke. In the years since – and even more so recently, in an era of racism and murky dealings behind the closed doors of FIFA  – I often wonder if maybe Charlie and Eric had a point after all.

Andy Martin is an author and a professor of French at the University of Cambridge. He is a West Ham fan, and the man behind Becksistentialism.
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