ST PETERSBURG: Exactly two decades ago, France lifted world football’s biggest prize with a squad nicknamed the ‘Rainbow Team’, a side composted of players with backgrounds from all corners of the globe. That multicultural squad, apart from some critics, united the whole of France. They were hosting the World Cup and they won and one Zinedine Zidane, who had Algerian roots, scored two of their three goals in the final against Brazil.

The current French squad, looking to emulate the achievements of their compatriots from 1998 in Russia, is no different. As many as 14 of their 23 players have African roots including Kylian Mbappe, their shining star at this World Cup. They are two victories away from bringing home a second World Cup title but to get to the final, they will need to overcome a team that is similarly multicultural.

Belgium too have several players of African descent including captain Vincent Kompany and leading frontman Romelu Lukaku. One of their players has even represented an African team before. Nacer Chadli played for Morocco before deciding to play for Belgium. The clash at the Krestovsky Stadium on Tuesday will therefore see the most African players outside of Africa taking part.

However, having a diverse squad isn’t usually a guarantee of success. Ask France themselves. At the 2010 World Cup, Patrice Evra and Nicolas Anelka — the man who began the coup against coach Raymond Domenech — were accused of not singing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, before matches. That World Cup was a disaster for France as they crashed out of the World Cup while Evra and Anelka were castigated for their roles. There were similar accusations from France’s far-right Front National party at the 1998 World Cup, though.

One of those from that team was Christian Karembeu, whose reasons for not singing the La Marseillaise was the French cruelty in his island of New Caledonia. “That wasn’t important,” Karembeu told Dawn in an interview earlier this year. “What was important was that we were united. With every victory we gained confidence, the French people came out to support us and when we won the World Cup, all the French people from all backgrounds came out to celebrate. It was a beautiful moment.”

It wasn’t so beautiful in 2010. Before the 2014 World Cup, Karim Benzema — the Real Madrid striker who has been exiled from the French team despite being cleared of charges of soliciting an under-age prostitute — spoke out that racial profiling was still prevalent in French football and beyond. “If I score, I’m French … if I don’t, I’m an Arab,” he said.

Belgium already has a divide over its two predominant cultural and linguistic groups — Flemings, who speak Dutch, and Waloons, who speak dialects of French. Their squad already has players from those two cultures. Add to that players of Congolese origin like Lukaku and Kompany, and it’s a complex mix. Like Benzema, though, Lukaku wrote recently there were times when he was reminded of his origins: “When things were going well, they called me Lukaku, the Belgian striker … when they weren’t, I was Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”

Since he took over the reins, coach Roberto Martinez has harmonised a multicultural, multilingual Belgium squad by using English as the language of communication in the team camp. He calls English the language of football. He has also drawn upon the experience of a former France player to manage a multicultural squad.

Thierry Henry was part of the ‘Rainbow Team’ as well as the 2010 one in which he said he felt ‘isolated’. The key to managing such a team could well be preventing players from feeling what Henry felt eight years ago in South Africa.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2018