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Goodbye Twentieth Century

A proposal: when we wile away the hours compiling lists of the Greatest Ever Footballers, we are doing a disservice to this form of discourse if we do not take its premises seriously. To pretend that we can go on existing without this genetically-hewn proclivity for reducing the world to an Excel document is both futile and obscene, and we’ve no interest in arguing as to whether Grand Ranking is really a childish waste of everyone’s time. Grand RankingAcademie francaise is the most durable of discourses because it is anti-academic, ludicrous, and painstakingly entertaining; it is therefore, fittingly enough, the BEST WAY to talk about football, just as Return of the Jedi is the BEST FILM of all time. Rather, we’d like to refine the discourse to the point of genteel respectability, to ensure that, to appropriate Kierkegaard, when we start Ranking players, we have the ‘courage to think a thought whole’.

The notion of taking Grand Ranking a little more seriously surfaced, as good ideas always do, after reading work by writers better than ourselves. Firstly, The Football Pantheon has provided a well-furnished playground for the schematics of schematics. Secondly, we’ve been thinking about France, largely as a result of the second issue of the soon-to-be-mandatory Blizzard, which featured no fewer than four pieces on French football and its seemingly interminable identity crises; from Philippe Auclair’s justified anger at foreign news reports of the ‘race quota’ (non-)scandal, to James Horncastle’s account of the European exploits of the national team that never was, Saint-Etienne in the 1970s. The French do seem to suffer these footballing identity crises with heightened alacrity and regularity, mopping their brows and wringing their hands like the hoodwinked patriarch of yet another dreadful Molière play. The notion emerged: what could a Grand Ranking of the Greatest Ever French Players tell us about the short circuits France has experienced in the football team-nation synecdoche? What makes one player a Greater French player than another? How distinct is being the greatest French player from being the greatest French player? Ranking needs to become a more rigorously historical endeavour.

France is kind to the footballing geneticist, in that it is relatively simple to isolate three peaks of talent, neatly spaced a generation or so from one another. The 1950s: Stades Reims in the inaugural European Cup Final, and France in the World Cup semi-final against Brazil. The 1980s: le carré magique, Euro triumph, and two more semis. The late 1990s: the rainbow nation finally steps from the shadows of history. It is also quite painless symbolically to concentrate each of these national uprisings into one individual: Raymond Kopa, Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane. So, as an embryonic essay: who is the greatest French player of all time? Who is the most complete synecdoche?

1. Raymond KOPA (1931 – ). At first, the working class was conspicuous by its absence. In place of the trade-port city-urban working class matrix that brought football to Bilbao or Odessa, in its primordial days in l’hexagone, football was the preserve of an urban social elite intent on imitating the dying wildebeest of British amateurism; a welter of different ‘national’ federations resembling country estates. Despite the first ‘national’ league bubbling to the surface in 1894, roughly thirty years passed before the game’s thorough dissemination amongst the proletariat, taken up by factory workforces as an alternative to group gymnastics that seemed grotesquely militaristic after the First World War. The scent of amateurism hung over French football for years after the faltering introduction of professionalism by an avowedly uneasy FFF: players were allowed to pursue other careers, which created teams of mixed class backgrounds; of players trying to be footballers and players trying earn enough to become something else.

Raymond Kopaszewski became a footballer because he wanted to be an electrician. Born in 1931 into a Polish immigrant community in industrial Nœux-les-Mines, his priority was to avoid the mines that had defined both his people and his town. Never too crazy for football, he would say, ‘but there was the mine…’ The ellipse speaks volumes. The old assurances of working class solidarity and dependable labour must have seemed emblematic of a dead age; one whose ideological vividness had led to two world wars. Football, in its French incarnation as a transitional, oddly classless profession, held a pragmatic appeal.

That symbolic stepping into the light from the pits, the wiping of coal dust from his face, suggests something else. Kopa walked away from the mines, and also from himself, from Kopaszewski. He represents the universalising effect of French working class politics, an effect reinforced by the grim divisions of the wars. The République as an entity has always entailed a particular attitude towards labour movements; emancipation is realised through access to a more universal culture, the effacing of scars as a guarantee of solidarity. Francifying his surname, dropping his maternal language, and stepping out of the mines that had supported and restricted his family, Kopa made the transition from community to society.

Kopa is post-war France; harried by a sense of what to avoid, the dwindling gravity of industrial labour, and conscious of a new culture that would resolve cultural difference into something moderate and prosperous.

2. Michel PLATINI (1955 – ). French exceptionalism has manifested itself most persistently in a commitment to the ideals of public service, expressed through the bureaucratic hum of administration at all levels. There has always been a resistance in the system to professionalism, business, financialisation (in that chronological order). Their hand forced by Jean-Pierre Peugeot’s purchase of Sochaux in 1932, the FFF permitted professional players, in return for a guarantee that clubs themselves would not become marketable businesses, and would remain under the auspices of the Federation; an early Third Way compromise. In many ways, French football was professionalised in order to make regulation easier.

In a country whose industrialisation produced middling, single-product towns over sprawling urban conurbations, municipal identity is pronounced, and even today, many clubs rent their stadia from local government. (in Saint-Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, called ‘the green cauldron’, one stand is closed for refurbishment: a banner across the base reads, ‘a brand new cauldron: Loire Métropole is building it for you!’) Small-town regionalism was once at the heart of French football, the lingering scent of Catholic masses, or the bark of a dog on a paved Mediterranean street.

As the Second World War faded into sepia, the practicability of the provinces stagnated. Urbanisation crept along apace. In 1971, Paris Saint-Germain was founded, and the capital finally had a team with the financial clout to persist as a championship threat. Marseille, that anachronistic, acrid expanse of port, dominated the 1980s. Michel Platini seems haunted by the twentieth century that was dwindling even as he was born. He strained at the limits of French football, promoting Lorraine stalwarts Nancy to Ligue 1, losing two cup finals with Saint-Etienne – the only provincial team in France ever to have a sustained history of quality – and, of course, falling in consecutive World Cup semi-finals with easily the most talented side the nation has ever had.

Platini’s French achievements are hedged, worn at the edges by a sense of proportion that the game was leaving behind (perhaps best exemplified by the ill-advised victory lap at Heysel after his 1985 European Cup-winning exploits with Juventus). He embodied a sense of exceptional wit and luxury yielding to the inevitable: ‘the Astérix complex’, a denial of the continuing relevance of the French model by the forces of the market, the metropolis, and the brutally omnipresent German Mannschaft. It is fitting that he won the Euros, but not the World Cup. He had to forsake his sentimental education and move to the bear-pit of Serie A to realise his potential. And since retiring, he has strived to reassert some of that administrative order, that sense of public duty that he couldn’t recreate on the pitch. National team manager; responsible for bringing the World Cup to France; UEFA president, with FIFA in his sights like a gaping Portuguese goalmouth; perhaps above all, Financial Fair Play regulations. The sense that he is clutching at straws, straining at history, is both his private tragedy and the dull mess of his people.

3. Zinedine ZIDANE (1972 – ). With Zidane we reach an endgame, of sorts. The founding of PSG was a portent; even in France, money was going to make itself heard. With the financialisation of economies, l’hexagone began to lose its old voice, the rhyme and reason of public duty and statism stuck in the throat. The grand old Administrators – the ghosts of Baron de Coubertin and Jules Rimet – began to seem more anti-modern than particularist. The banlieues stacked around the increasingly precarious centre of Paris become symbolic of gashes to Kopa’s ‘universal’ culture, a quaint notion in a world where identity is both as restrictive and as liquid as cash.

Honed in these conditions – raised in an area of Marseille where unemployment among the immigrant population languished at around 40% – Zidane has always exuded the air of a man devoid of attachments. That hawkish gaze, inscrutable tendency to apparently arbitrary violence, the penchant for the unrealistically sublime over the rambunctiously gifted. He witnesses and plays with a granite logic, one of dominance rather than wit. Platini seemed always to be darting from the trenches; Zidane to be sitting back, assured in his superiority, practically unable to lose the ball or to concede ground. This is a man who openly stated that he hopes all matches between France – for whom he won a bleedin’ World Cup – and Algeria end in a draw so he is not forced to side with either his heritage or his present circumstance. A man who will likely declare his son legally Spanish. Who supported the Qatari bid for the World Cup. And who headbutted Marco Materazzi in his last ever professional match. Zidane is the illogically logical force of the market. He is peak oil.

Of course, the terrifying fact is that this is precisely the kind of player that France needed to obtain if the nation was ever to win the World Cup. Zidane weighs more heavily on the consciousness of the French that Platini or Kopa, for the very simple reason that he won; he overcame that hoary old ‘Astérix complex’. He allowed France to realise itself, by voiding it of its own heritage (the defensively stacked team of Aimé Jacquet, who actually fielded Stéphane Guivarc’h in a World Cup final, bore no real resemblance to the futile grace and luxury that had been Les Bleus’ trademarks of yore). This is why the discourse surrounding Zidane is so massive and so torturous. He needs to be explained away with what, for him, seem rather cheap labels of greatness. He doesn’t need this as much as he doesn’t deserve it. His elevation to the rank of France’s greatest ever is a defence mechanism against the inconvenient truth that he is not particularly French.

For what it’s worth, all things considered, Platini was the Greatest Ever French Player. Unlike Kopa, who became French, Platini was French. He nurtured the dying embers of the age that had birthed him, and he fought against what was to come even as he created it. Fittingly, Zidane stands apart: the Greatest Ever Zidane, if anything; he refused to be identified with a nation to which he was not contractually bound. Alternatively: it was very French indeed of Michel Platini to lose two consecutive World Cup semi-finals to Germany; but it was very Zidane of Zinedine Zidane to headbutt Marco Materazzi in the chest, and then to walk off down the tunnel into the beckoning twenty-first century.

James and Samuel mop up after each other at Football in the GULag and @The_GULag.

Suck it, Empire fans.

Some nations have a style and the discourse flows from there: Spain, or Holland, or Brazil. I’d say that the symbolic reason for the last World Cup’s dreary atmosphere (aside from the crudely scientific fact that the balls were made of a kind of paper) was that Holland and Brazil trashed their heritage with nary a shrug, depriving us of our usual coherent narratives (respectively: playing well and losing, and playing well and winning). Indeed, immediately after a World Cup in which Holland reached the final, viewing figures for the national team suffered a huge slump, in reaction to the Oranje becoming unrecognisably solid and indomitable (‘German’). Elsewhere, the giddily twirling, vomit-flecked circus that is the England side seems to suffer, if anything, from a surplus of some noxious identity, which, despite all evidence to the contrary, they can’t seem to reform; like a racist who can’t quite bring himself to masturbate over his attractive Indian neighbour. But the French, they don’t seem to know what they want.

Although he never disassociated from the pitch entirely. During the 1998 World Cup Final, a French national team kit could clearly be seen through the besuited Platini’s shirt.

The reams of rhetoric about the triumph of the ‘rainbow nation’ in 1998 attest to this. As Philippe Auclair pointed out in the above-mentioned Blizzard piece, there is absolutely nothing new in France fielding a cosmopolitan team: in 1931, Raoul Diagne became the first ever player of African origin to represent the colonial metropolis at national level, a trend that has hardly abated since. French football has arguably been for over a century the most persistently multicultural in the world. Platini too, in 2005, said that people who heralded the arrival of the blanc, noir et beur France only in 1998 ‘do not know their country’. Perhaps the only way that France could identify with Zidane’s team and their rather un-French victory was to equate ‘France’ with the ethnic diversity that was being heralded as their defining feature. But this is a historically inaccurate metonym.

Read More:

Goodbye Twentieth Century

by Samuel Goff & James Coleman · November 29, 2011

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