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Boys from the hood: French team ignites dreams in gritty suburbs

AFP  |  Bondy (France) 

In a housing estate in the gritty northern suburb of Bondy, Wagui showed off the stack of trophies he has accumulated during his budding career.

"Best AS 2016, best Vichy U17 tournament," the tall 16-year-old with the shaved zig-zag haircut said, reading aloud out the inscriptions on the cups that his parents keep on their bedside table.

Wagui's finest hour, however, may have been when he was called on to block shots from local wunderkind, star striker

"It was difficult," he says with a shy smile, "but sometimes I succeeded."

As excitement builds at the prospect of Les Bleus taking home the World Cup, 20 years after their win on home soil, their success is a source of pride in the deprived estates or "banlieues" where many of France's players honed their game.

Of the 23 players in the French squad, around two-thirds are of Arab or African descent, drawing comparisons with the mythologised "Black-Blanc-Beur" (Black-White-Arab) team of 1998.

Their legend looms large over the tower blocks that dominate the skyline of northeast

"Nowadays young people are proud to say they come from Bondy," Adama's Senegalese-born father of seven Issa said.

- 'They live for football' -


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Standing on the pitch at AS Bondy's home ground, recalls the almost freakish talent of a young Mbappe, slaloming Maradona-style past five defenders to ram a ball into the back of the net.

"The best players come out of these neighbourhoods because the kids here are always out kicking a ball," Riccardi told AFP.

"They live for football, whether at school or on the estate." Like Saint-Germain's Mbappe, whose parents have Cameroonian and Algerian roots, many were born into immigrant families.

But few make it out of the "banlieues", trapped in a cycle of poverty, discrimination and underachievement that has compared to being "under house arrest" and former criticised in 2015 as "apartheid".

"The only way out to make it here is in sport or rap," said Ismail Gencel, the owner of a restaurant in

While Mbappe, born five months after France's 1998 victory, dreams of joining the pantheon of winners, dreams about following in his footsteps, out of into the big league.

The task of managing his expectations falls to his coaches.

"We tell them there is only one Messi, only one Ronaldo, only one Mbappe, and that the road to success cuts through school," said Jeremy Mimouni, another at AS Bondy.

- Love-hate relationship -

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Because there is only one Mbappe, his 50,000-strong hometown, which extends on either side of a motorway linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport, is intent on capitalising on his renown.

"Bondy, the town where anything is possible," read a giant poster of the that was pasted across a block of flats overlooking the motorway after he was signed by PSG last year.

aside it does not always feel that way, however. Unemployment in the region where Bondy is situated is running at 11.8 percent, compared to 7.1 percent in Paris.

Weeds push up through the pavement outside the block of flats where the Wagui family lives and all the kids chasing a around a nearby court are black, highlighting the sense of segregation between central Paris and its suburbs.

- 'Enchanted interlude' -

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But if football does hold up a mirror to French society, the relationship between the public and the national team has not always been a happy one.

Players from the suburbs were being blamed for a mutiny at the 2010 tournament in South Africa, which ended with crashing out in the first round.

The slurs against some of the heroes of the "banlieues", such as striker Nicolas Anelka, left scars in places like Bondy.

Another win for a multi-ethnic team, coming as polls show French attitudes towards migrants hardening, "would create some positive momentum and unite people for a while," Riccardi said.

"But would it last?" he wondered.

History suggests not.

Four years after France's 1998 win the myth of a united "Black-Blanc-Beur" country exploded when far-right grabbed the runner-up spot behind in

The win, concluded in a 2007 article about immigration and football, had led to nothing more than an "enchanted interlude".

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Tue, July 10 2018. 11:15 IST
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