When Aimé Jacquet announced his squad ahead of World Cup '98, it was one of the most diverse that France had ever seen. While Raoul Diagne, the first black player to make an appearance for Les Bleus, had broken through the national team's colour barrier way back in the early thirties, the French national team was for many years less multiracial than the country itself. While Just Fontaine and Jean Tigana flew the flag for a more inclusive France team early on – the former born in Morocco to a French father and a Spanish mother and the latter in French Sudan, now known as Mali – the team which went to Mexico '86 was overwhelmingly white with few real surprises. Having failed to qualify for the tournament in 1990 and again four years later, the France team which prepared to host the World Cup on home soil in 1998 was much changed.
Under Jacquet's steady guidance, the nineties had seen the national team come to comprise players from an incredibly broad range of backgrounds. There were men included in the squad who could trace their parentage to Senegal, Armenia, Ghana, the French Antilles, New Caledonia and French Guiana, amongst others. With many of these countries former French colonies or at least heavily influenced by imperial France, the team seemed symbolic of a postcolonial world where subjects were now citizens, and so had the opportunity to represent the nation to which they were commonly tied by history. For some, the team was also symbolic of the dawning of a golden age of multiculturalism, though with hindsight that idea seems sadly naive.
As the host nation, France were excused from World Cup qualifiers and so had an extended time to prepare for the tournament itself. In 1997, as a dry run for the competition, Jacquet's men hosted the Tournoi de France, a friendly tournament which also featured England, Italy and Brazil in which several experimental sides were put to the test. There was considerable unease amongst the home nation's supporters when Les Bleus finished an underwhelming third in the Tournoi, with England surprising everyone and triumphing in an international competition for once, even if it was only a warm up. France fans need not have been too worried, however, much as England fans need not have got their hopes up ahead of the main affair.
France ended up in a group alongside Denmark, South Africa and Saudi Arabia, with games at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, the Stade Gerland in Lyon and the Stade de France in the Parisian suburbs. With the mercurial Fabien Barthez in goal, an ironclad defence of Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc and Bixente Lizarazu, a muscular midfield of Didier Deschamps, Patrick Vieira, Christian Karembeu and Emmanuel Petit, and a frenetic attack comprised of David Trezeguet, Youri Djorkaeff, Robert Pirès and Thierry Henry, they tore through the group at a blistering pace. There was also the small matter of their team talisman, the imperious Zinedine Zidane. Owing to his Algerian heritage and his tough, working-class background, Zidane was a hero to the thousands of French citizens who could trace their family histories back to North Africa, and was in many ways the poster boy of a revolutionised national team.
He was also sent off in the second game of the group stage – a 4-0 victory over Saudi Arabia – not that it would hinder France in their quest to top the group with three wins from three. Zidane's insolent stamp on Fuad Anwar could be seen as a forerunner to his infamous red card in the World Cup final eight years later, but for now the French only had to worry about how to get by without him in the Round of 16. In the end, it was only through a late golden goal from Laurent Blanc that they defeated Paraguay, with their South American opponents making life extremely difficult for them. There was much nail-biting when they were then drawn with Italy in the quarter-finals, with the Azzurri runners-up at World Cup '94 and semi-finalists four years previous.
In what was an unbearably tense game for France fans – and possibly just an unbearable game for everyone else – two magnificent back fours fought a titanic battle at the Stade de France, with an Italian defence of Bergomi, Cannavaro, Costacurta and Maldini more than a match for Thuram, Lizarazu, Blanc and Desailly. Unsurprisingly, the fixture was still goalless after extra time, and a guarded game was decided on penalties. Despite Lizarazu missing the second spot kick for France, Italy were let down first by Demetrio Albertini and then by Roma midfielder Luigi Di Biagio. Fabien Barthez saved cooly from Albertini, while Di Biagio's effort rebounded back off the crossbar. The ground shook with celebration, and France were through.
Having dispatched Croatia in the semi-finals – though not before some gamesmanship from Slaven Bilic had made sure Blanc would miss the final through suspension – France were pitted against the majesty of Brazil. The final would be overshadowed by a bizarre incident involving Ronaldo, with the brilliant Brazilian striker suffering a seizure the day before the match but nonetheless being rushed back into the starting line-up, with his inclusion announced barely an hour before kick off. Conspiracy theories abounded, especially when he proceeded to put in a lacklustre performance as Brazil went 2-0 down before half-time. France were magnificent with Zidane ascendant, a phoenix from the ashes of gratuitous disciplinary issues. He scored two first-half headers and, when Emmanuel Petit put some gloss on the scoreline in the final minute, there was no doubt as to the winners. To an outpouring of national euphoria, France lifted the World Cup for the first time on home turf.
In the aftermath of their triumph, France would be labelled the 'rainbow nation' for the racial diversity of their team, with their success seen as a tribute to a progressive society and inclusive politics. With France's Caribbean, African and Arab diasporas celebrating the win with enormous enthusiasm and seeming to identify with heroes like Zidane, Desailly, Thuram and the rest, it was expedient to present the World Cup as a symbol of unity for FIFA and the French political establishment alike.
Unfortunately, it was only a few years before this narrative began to unravel, with riots in 2005 exposing continuing racial tensions and Jean-Marie Le Pen – then leader of the Front National – saying that France "cannot recognise itself in the national side… maybe the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of colour" not long afterwards. In recent years, France has been rocked by a resurgence in support for the far-right, civil unrest and a string of deadly terror attacks linked to the Islamic State, some of which were perpetrated by French citizens. Clearly, while Les Bleus brought euphoria and optimism to France at World Cup '98, the harmony of the 'rainbow nation' was as intense as it was fleeting and incomplete.