The French national team first made a telling impact on the FIFA World Cup™ 50 years ago, and since then history has repeated itself with unerring regularity. Every 20 years, in fact, Les Bleus have left their mark on the world game, led by the son or grandson of immigrants.
Kopa and Platini, Ballons d'Or winners
Born Raymond Kopaszewski, Raymond Kopa was already playing international football in his childhood, as he describes in his autobiography, Kopa par Raymond Kopa (Kopa by Raymond Kopa): "Most of us were kids from Polish families but a few French kids ended up wandering into our gang. That was all it took to organise our first international matches: Poland against France."
In 1958, the 'Napoleon of football' transferred his expertise from his neighbourhood streets to the playing fields of Sweden, swapping "a rolled-up ball of rags and sometimes even a tin can" for a real ball and a France shirt.
Despite slipping up against Yugoslavia, to whom they lost 3-2, Albert Batteux's men graduated from the group stage with a 7-3 win over Paraguay and a 2-1 defeat of Scotland, before Northern Ireland were swept aside 4-0 in the quarter-finals. Only last-four opponents Brazil, and a certain Pele, were able to stop France in their tracks, leaving them to take the consolation prize of a 6-3 triumph over West Germany in the match for third place.
As for the son of Francois Kopa, who arrived at the railway station in Noeux-les-Mines with his parents and three brothers and sisters in 1919, the pain of defeat was somewhat alleviated by two individual titles: player of the tournament and, a few months later, the Ballon d'Or, an honour he will always be the first French player to have received.
He was also the last before Michel Platini exploded on to the scene. The current UEFA President long felt torn between France, where he was born and grew up, and Italy, the land of his ancestors. As he explained in his autobiography, Ma vie comme un match (My life as a match): "Before the France-Italy game, I was listening to the two anthems and was moved by both of them, so I asked myself: 'who are you?' I'm French, there's no doubt about it, and what you feel in your heart is important, but there's also blood, family, your father."
Grandson of Francesco Platini, who arrived in Lorraine from his native Piedmont at the age of 16, the former Juventus legend overcame any doubts to relaunch Les Bleus as a force to be feared. After 12 barren years following England 1996, 'Platoche' was a key figure as the French qualified for Argentina 1978.
Their tilt at the title ended in the group stage, but Michel Hidalgo's troops possibly deserved a better fate. And for 'King Michel', as he was nicknamed in his grandfather's homeland, fate intervened to bring him up against Italy in his very first FIFA World Cup match, a game France lost 2-1.
They beat the same opponents on penalties in 1998, of course, during the tournament that produced France's most recent iconic figure, Zinedine Zidane. Much more attached to his origins than either Kopa or Platini, he wrote in his book Le roman d'une victoire (The novel of a victory) of the pride he felt when 70,000 spectators began chanting his name at the Stade Mohammed V in Casablanca during a Hassan II tournament match against Belgium on 27 May 1998. Turning to his astonished team-mates, he told them that though he was not Moroccan, "I have Arab blood. I was very proud of it right then."
'Zizou' became the symbol of France 1998 for the entire nation. When his side kicked off their bid in his home town of Marseille, the son of Smail, who left Algeria for Saint-Denis at 16, declared: "This evening, I will be proud to be French." Over the next four weeks, the elegant playmaker thrilled his fellow countrymen in his five appearances, with two goals in the final against Brazil the clear highlight. As excited as any schoolboy as he lifted the trophy, he later explained with obvious enthusiasm: "I scored for France in a World Cup Final!"
Three men, three different origins, but a shared trajectory of leading France to the forefront of the global game. 1958, 1978 and 1998: all were special years for French football, and no doubt the likes of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa will look to continue the trend in qualifying Les Bleus for the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Stranger things have happened, after all.