Diversity to the forefront at England and France World Cup quarter-final

For any particular English man or woman, an England-France football match is a replay of the 15th century Battle of Agincourt, in which an English king crossed the odds to defeat the French forces.

At Doha’s All Thumama stadium on Saturday, England will start their World Cup semi-finals as a weak team again. Perhaps the most interesting observation is that the cadres of both countries are from very different backgrounds.

Gareth Southgate and Didier Deschamps will play a talented collection of players on the field, from tournament top scorer Kylian Mbappe with five goals to Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka, who scored three goals each.

All three of these players have their roots far from the shores of their respective countries. Mbappe was born in Paris to Cameroonian and Algerian parents. While Saka’s parents settled in west London as economic immigrants from Nigeria, Manchester-born Rashford’s working-class origins include a grandmother from St Kitts, a West Indies island ruled by both Britain and France during colonial times.

The ethnic mix of both national sides and clubs playing in the Premier League and Ligue 1, each country’s top flight, is a striking and sometimes – contentious feature – as pockets of racism persist in recent years.

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When France beat Brazil to win the 1998 World Cup at the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris, success was marked by two catchy slogans: un-deux-trois-xero, black to remember the surprisingly emphatic 3-0 scoreline. -blanc -beur showing the black, white and Maghreb composition of the French team.

Mbappe is an example of the 2022 edition with its rich cultural diversity.

Kylian Mbappe is the talisman of an ethnically diverse French team.  Getty Pictures

In the previous match where France beat Poland 3-1 in the Round of 16, the starting line-up was Jules Kounde of Benin/French descent; Raphael Varane (father from the French Caribbean division of Martinique); Dayot Upamecano, one of whose ancestors was a village king in the small West African province of Guinea-Bissau; Aurelien Tchouameni (from Cameroon); Ousmane Dembele (with family roots combining Mali, Senegal and Mauritius) and some of his non-French European blood, among others.

England have started their last 16 game against Senegal with fewer non-English team members. High-rated young midfielder Jude Bellingham has African, British and Irish roots, but Saka and Kyle Walker, the Sheffield-born son of Jamaican and British parents, were the other black players in the starting lineup.

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In either camp, however, the Anglo-French rivalry will be less important than the desire to win whatever the opposition.

This is the turn of an already long history where the two countries enjoyed being allies as well as deadly neighbors.

The ethnic mix of both national sides … is a striking and sometimes controversial feature of recent years.

History tells us that the bloody conflict at Agincourt, 75km south of Calais, is a magnificent example of intermittent fighting for centuries.

Even in peacetime, the extent of violent conflict prevails. Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak’s predecessor as UK prime minister, said during her campaign to follow Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street, that the “jury is out” on whether French President Emmanuel Macron is friend or foe. He did not succumb to diplomatic obligations until he took up the short-lived prime ministership, declaring him a friend.

A series of squabbles between northern France and the UK on issues such as Covid travel restrictions, fishing rights and migrant traffic have haunted post-Brexit relations.

England in training – in pictures

The French press amused the headlines that pitted King Kylian against Britain’s Prince Harry, setting aside republican principles to present the World Cup match in royal terms.

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The first represents the genius of Mbappe. England captain Harry Kane was cast as Prince Harry, evoking the last sentence of the imaginary Agincourt rally speech attributed by Shakespeare to Henry V: “‘Harry, cry God for England and St George’.”

Six centuries after that war, Marc Lievremont, then head coach of the French rugby team, made it clear where he stood before the 2011 Six Nations international match in Twickenham. He declared kinship with our “Italian cousins” and “festive Celts”, but did not establish kinship with the British.

“We don’t like them, and it’s better to say this is a fun place than to be hypocritical,” he said. “We respect them – well I do – but you can’t say we have the slightest thing in common.”

Fired or offended by his unfriendly words, England beat France in that match and went on to win the tournament.

A promising omen for England after all these recent departures from the neighbourhood? Not if the Battle of Agincourt offers a much older historical precedent: France survived a humiliating defeat and won the 100 Years’ War, of which it was a part, forty years later.

Updated: 10 December 2022 00:20


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