Love Letters to the European Union: La Marseillaise à Marseille

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. This week it’s the reigning world champions. Two time World Cup winners, two time European Championship winners, two time Confederations Cup winners, two time King Hassan II International Cup winners. Allez les Black-Blanc-Beurs! Allez les Bleus! 


The Player: Raoul Diagne


There was a strange atmosphere on the streets of Marseille on 12th June 1998. The Marseillais roaming the streets late in the afternoon should have been in a party mood, as the hosts of the 16th FIFA World Cup were preparing to kick off their campaign against South Africa at the Stade Velodrome that evening. While most of the French public were excited about watching Aime Jacquet’s side begin what would ultimately be a successful tournament, there was a noisy minority that, ironically, refused to join in with the singing and chanting on the way to the game. With the words of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the President of the National Front, ringing in their ears, many believed this was not truly a French side, and for that reason the World Cup coming to France was not something to celebrate. Le Pen had described Jacquet’s squad as ‘too artificial’ because of players that had been ‘brought in from abroad’. What the daft racist seemed to have forgotten is that France were the front-runners of multiculturalism in international football, and it all began with Raoul Diagne.

Diagne’s father, Blaise, had been born in French-colonised Senegal, before being adopted by a wealthy French family and studying his way into a job with the customs service. His job would take him around Africa, where he would meet his future wife in Madagascar and see his son born in French Guiana in 1910. Eventually returning his family to France in order to run for the French National Assembly, Blaise watched on with disapproval as his son took an interest in football, signing professionally with Racing Club Paris at the age of nineteen. It was thanks to the participation of African-born representatives in the political world that Diagne’s first call-up to the French national team in 1931 was met with celebration rather than derision. Like fellow colony residents Abdelkader Ben Bouali and Ali Benouna, Diagne was treated as a ‘citizen of the empire’. A symbol of France’s power as a nation, rather than an imposter.

Given the era in which he played, his appearance of course led to Diagne being singled out by supporters. The nickname ‘The Black Spider’ was bestowed upon him, something of a double-edged sword as his admirers combined the colour of his skin with his dazzling on-field attributes. A tenacious defensive-minded midfielder, Diagne’s striking 6’1” frame was able to stride forward at will, his long legs adept at both covering ground and winning back possession when necessary. His decade at Racing Club coincided with the most successful period in the club’s history, winning three French cups and one league title in 1936 – a season that would see Diagne deputise in goal following a wage dispute with first-choice ‘keeper Rudi Hiden. In 1938, Diagne was named in the squad as France hosted the World Cup for the first time, reaching the quarter-finals before losing out to Benito Mussolini’s Italy.

As the Second World War approached, Diagne’s career began to wind down, with 1940 seeing his last appearances for both the national team and Racing Club. A four year spell with Toulouse followed, before Diagne finished his playing career with FC Annecy in 1946. In 1960 he became the first coach of the Senegal national team, following the country’s independence from France. Though only in the role for a year, Diagne’s legacy as a trailblazer in the game was cemented, and he has since been christened ‘the grandfather of Senegalese football’.

Though he passed away at the age of 92, Diagne lived to see France’s ‘Rainbow Team’ lift their first World Cup in 1998, with players of Algerian, Ghanaian, and Senegalese descent all playing a major role in the hosts’ success, owing a debt to Diagne and his contemporaries. Le Pen had been wrong all along. This was France at its most authentic.


The Game: France 3-2 Portugal, 1984


Before Mbappe, Pogba and Zidane, there was Platini. And before corruption scandals, Panama Papers and draw-fixing, Platini was one of the best in the world. He fired Saint Etienne to their most recent league title in 1981, he was the driving force behind Juventus’ slew of trophies in the 1980s, and in 1984 he led France to the European Championships in one of the most exciting teams of the decade.

France came into the tournament still wearing the bruises of their semi-final defeat to West Germany at the ’82 World Cup. The midfield of Platini, Jean Tigana, and Alain Giresse had matured in the two years following their Spanish heartbreak, and just months before the opening game against Denmark, Paris Saint Germain’s Luis Fernandez had been added to create ‘The Magic Square’, a foursome so serene you could use them in an M&S advert, knocking the ball around with a nonchalant grace, before turning on the after-burners to carve open defences. In the space of a few weeks, they became every neutral’s favourite team.

It was clear from the off that France would be the team to beat, despite an unconvincing win over debutantes Denmark in the opening game. Platini followed that winner up with a hat-trick in a 5-0 drubbing of Belgium, before an end-to-end meeting with Yugoslavia finished 3-2 in favour of the hosts. Platini adding a further three goals to take his total for the tournament to seven after three games. The Danes joined France in the semi-finals, with the home supporters hoping for revenge against West Germany. That opportunity would never arrive, however, as Antonio Maceda’s 90th minute winner in the deciding game of the group set up a semi-final between Spain and Denmark, with Portugal taking second place and heading to Marseille to meet France. West Germany headed home.

On a balmy evening in the south of France, with the remnants of sunshine beating down on the Stade Velodrome, Les Bleus and Portugal lined up for what would be a first final appearance in a major tournament for both teams. Naturally it was the hosts that took the game to their opponents, and in the 24th minute full-back Jean-Francois Domergue opened the scoring, smashing a free-kick into the top corner. The Toulouse defender had posted some decent performances since being drafted in to replace the suspended Manuel Amoros, who’d got himself sent off in the opening game by headbutting Jesper Olsen, but it was his display in the semi-final that etched his name into French folklore. In the second half, the hosts piled pressure on the Portuguese goal with little reward. Fernandez fired wide from a rebound, while Giresse saw his long range effort beaten away by Portugal ‘keeper Manuel Bento, before fizzing a volley wide. Platini, too, found Bento in inspired form, as his snapshot from the edge of the area was acrobatically turned wide.

Onslaught survived, Portugal grew into the game, and minutes after Fernando Gomes’ close-range shot had been cleared off the line, Rui Jordão shocked Marseille by looping in a header to equalise. Straight from kick-off, Platini strode through the Portuguese defence, only for Bento to race off his line and block the effort, before Didier Six lobbed the rebound onto the top of the crossbar. With no winner forthcoming, extra-time beckoned.

French shock turned to disbelief when, eight minutes into the first period of extra-time, Jordão’s deflected effort flew into the top corner to give Portugal the lead. Almost immediately Joel Bats was forced to smother Nené’s attempted dink, after a swift counter left the French defence cold. One hundred minutes into the match, and neither team looked ready to drop their intensity, providing a mesmeric ebb and flow to the game. Deep into the second half of extra-time, with the minutes slipping away from the hosts, Domergue raced into the penalty area to slide the ball past Bento and level the scores. Two-all and fleeting relief, before the dawning realisation of an impending penalty shootout. The long shadow of Seville suddenly darkening the minds of those on the pitch and in the stands. Thankfully for France, the drama wasn’t over.

With a minute to play, Fernandez bursts away from the home penalty area. He feeds Tigana, who turns, scampering towards the Portugal box, leaping past limbs and sidestepping tired swipes, all the while keeping the ball under his spell. His first attempt to play in Platini is thwarted, but still the Bordeaux magician drives forward. On the highlights footage, commentator John Motson’s voice begins to glide through the octaves, excitement mangling his pronunciation of the man on the ball at every turn. “Tigana…two to his right, and Platini through the middle, Tigana again. Tee-ga-nah! TEE-GA-NAH…” Tigana squares the ball to the unmarked, unfazed Platini. Tranquility personified in a sea of madness. Platini pivots on the ball, and buries it into the bottom corner. Motson now shouting himself hoarse.


France were in the final, where they would comfortably roll Spain over to lift their first major trophy. Perhaps not always the most popular team, the vintage of 1984 showed us that football doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death. It can just be a beautiful moment in time.

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