‘We all need to fight’: Thuram raises France alarm over political turmoil

Estimated read time 7 min read

Given the corporate framing, the boards covered in adverts, the heavy Uefa air, it might have came as a surprise to some of those looking on that Marcus Thuram should respond the way he did at a press call in Paderborn on Thursday, prelude to France’s tournament opener against Austria on Monday night in Düsseldorf.

Asked about the rise of far-right politics in France, the prospect of the overtly nationalist National Rally (RN) party taking a majority stake in parliament at the snap elections that will now take place around the quarter-final stage of this tournament, Thuram could have equivocated, looked after himself, hidden behind the professional athlete’s tunnel-vision persona.

No. Not doing that. “We all need to fight daily so that this doesn’t happen and that the National Rally does not succeed,” was the key note of Thuram’s sustained and detailed response, speaking from the heart, but above all with cold hard clarity, stating that it is not just a right but a duty to vote, and calling on his colleagues in the team to take a similar responsibility.

But then, this is a footballer who is named after Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican politician, union leader and, frankly, public firebrand. Not backing down, not being quiet, not letting it slide. This is the Marcus Garvey way.

It was also the way of Thuram’s father Lilian, who has his own history with the RN’s founding Le Pen family, having famously spoken out in 2006 against Jean‑Marie, father of current guiding spirit Marine, picking apart the basic failures of logic in RN’s notion of what it is to be French, the degree of willed ignorance required to conclude citizens of France with roots in its colonies should need to prove their French‑ness any more than anyone else.

Plus of course this has been a very public aspect of France’s national football team during the sustained success of the last quarter century. This has been portrayed at times as a rather sun-kissed vision of the future, performative harmony in bleu and white. Right now it feels more like a warning, a point of opposition to the confusions in the real world.

In 1998 Le Pen senior was little more than a high-profile agitator. Twenty‑six years on, the party now run by his daughter has driven the country back to the polls on 30 June and 7 July, forcing Emmanuel Macron’s hand via success at the recent EU elections. Should France’s players reach the final in Germany they could now find themselves applauded from the stands by Le Pen jr’s anointed prime minister, most likely the 28-year-old poster boy for acceptable ethnic nationalism, Jordan Bardella.

Perhaps in these circumstances football really can make a difference this time. France is a strange place right now, apparently in a state of domestic unravelling, from manure-spraying farmers to demos on the streets (650,000 marched in Paris last week). It is a state of disconnect that doesn’t align with some generally positive economic indicators, but feels instead cultural and existential.

Hence the urgency of Thuram’s comments. Hence the contrast, clearer than ever, between team and state, between France and France. Here we have a fretful nation, obsessed with race, elites and division; and set against this the football team’s high‑functioning state of harmony, with a feeling there is something vital and exemplary in this sporting model. Welcome, once again, to football against the enemy.

It is worth dwelling on that period of on-field success as France head into this tournament as the obvious team to beat. It is often overlooked, but in 1998 France had failed to qualify for the previous two World Cups. Since then, driven by the sophistication of its coaching systems and by the embrace of its diverse younger population, France has become world football’s sole reigning superpower.

Les Bleus have played in four of the past seven World Cup finals. France is the greatest net exporter of talent with 115 French players in Europe’s top five leagues according to figures compiled by the CIES Football Observatory. The lineal Best Player In The World is French. The current team won seven and drew one in Euros qualifying.

If there is a concern before Monday night it is perhaps the lack of real evolution in the team, but then steadiness is a Didier Deschamps hallmark. Mike Maignan has taken over from Hugo Lloris in goal. The injured Lucas Hernández will be missed, but there are high-class stand-ins. Antoine Griezmann, who has a low key but compelling case to be called the best central midfielder in Europe, will again be vital in his deeper role.

In attack Olivier Giroud is still around as unofficial father of the team before he ambles off to Los Angeles, his presence evidence of the benefits of never having any speed to lose. Drifting through games like a very handsome spring iceberg is not a quality that diminishes with age. Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé will provide the wide incision, and also in the latter’s case a theoretical point of weakness behind, one Deschamps will cover with a deep midfield pivot.

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And once again pretty much everything in this team, from tactics to that connection to the recent past, revolves around Deschamps’ ability to make this work. France’s manager is an extraordinary presence in his sport. There has been talk about the lack of A-list managers in international football, with Julian Nagelsmann and Luciano Spalletti generally fingered as the outstanding modern coaches on show.

Didier Deschamps has been involved with the national team for 23 of the last 35 years.View image in fullscreen

Ahem. Deschamps, who extended his contract to 2026 before this European Championship, is arguably the most significant all‑conquering single figure working in world football. He can be haughty, spiky, dour, steely and, to be honest, slightly scary in the flesh, essentially a huge square head, some piercing eyes and an aura of compete self-possession.

But Deschamps is also the third person, after Mário Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer to win the men’s World Cup as both player and coach. As a player he also won the Champions League with two clubs in two countries. Eric Cantona called him a porteur d’eau, which Deschamps took as a compliment. Chris Waddle, a teammate at Marseille, called him “a dog”, wide eyed with reverence at what a relentlessly excellent dog Deschamps was. Fabrizio Ravenelli said he had “square feet”, while rhapsodising over his influence at Juventus.

That stumpy, barking little Basque midfielder has now been present as player and manager for France over 23 of the past 35 years, a European Championship medal as manager the only significant omission from his personal haul, at which point he will basically have completed international football.

And while Deschamps is no politician, and some way short of a public liberal voice, his wider significance lies in his actions. As a player he was the only dedicated non-superstar in that great French team of 98, providing glue, support, and a sense of fraternal camaraderie that hasn’t always survived the years since.

So it is with his management. If other coaches seem more progressive, more interventionist in their tactical details, much of Deschamps’ own work is the cultural stuff, the interplay of people, an enabler and a catalyst for a supremely talented group. “My aim was always to make the team better,” Deschamps said of his playing style. It is deceptively simple stuff, deceptively banal, deceptively hard to do. And as ever, with a resonance that goes far beyond the limits of the pitch.

Source: theguardian.com

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