Book Review: Sacré Bleu

Sacré Bleu: From Zidane to Mbappé – A Football Journey

Author: Matthew Spiro
Page Length: 349 pages

Sacré Bleu details the twenty years between France’s first World Cup victory in 1998, in front of their adoring home fans, to their second world championship under the rainy skies of Moscow in 2018. It is written by Matthew Spiro, a highly-respected French football expert who has covered Gallic football for the past twenty years as a journalist and broadcaster and worked with many big publications and broadcasters. Currently, he is the Ligue 1’s lead commentator for its world feed and he presents the Ligue 1 Show, which is shown in over 150 countries around the world.

The book opens with the events of France’s first World Cup win in 1998, and how the team captured the hearts of a nation who traditionally had a nonchalant attitude towards their national football team. Winning on home turf with a memorable 3-0 victory over Brazil, the side made football “cool” and interesting for the French public, with even the French President at the time, Jacques Chirac, fully embracing the success of the national team (even though his interest in the game was fleeting at best) for increased political capital and standing with potential voters. However, the world championship team was heralded and lauded as being the perfect encapsulation of ‘Modern France’, with many of its World Cup-winning side coming from the large community of immigrant families who reside in France. How the “Black-Blanc-Beur” side showed players from all sections of society worked together to create success for France on an international scale, something which the nation could replicate in society, with the team’s icon, Zinedine Zidane, a player with Algerian parents, becoming the icon of not just the North African community but of France as a whole.

Alas, the love of the French national team amongst the French public would fluctuate throughout the World Cups depending on its fortunes. The miserable defence of their trophy in 2002 would severely dent the image of Les Bleus, with its initial lauded multiculturalism being targetted as a negative amongst the right-wing section of French society. This racist ethos would be in full effect during their infamous 2010 World Cup campaign, which could be described as the nadir of French football. A maelstrom of poor leadership, big egos, a clash of generations, and the failure of highly-promising yet flawed Le Génération ‘87 (with Samir Nasri not coming across very well with his multiple actions during his spell with the national team) was seized upon by the far-right as an indication of the failures of French society – essentially the national team became the complete opposite of their 1998, with the popularity of the national team taking a tumbling because of their strike action in South Africa.

It wouldn’t be until the 1998-winning captain Didier Deschamps took charge of Les Bleus did the reputation and performances of the national team steadily improve. Despite setbacks along the way, such as the failure to repeat the feats of 1984 by losing in their home European Championship in 2016, the fallout from the l’Affaire de la Sex-Tape scandal, and continual criticism in his conservative tactics, he would eventually reach the crescendo of his rebuild being the country’s second world title in Russia. This reasserted the national team back into the nation’s admiration, repairing the ruined reputation of eight years previous, and matching the achievements of twenty years prior, especially with President Emmanuel Macron showing more convincing and genuine support of the national team especially as the young head of state had been a lower league player in his past, and is a renowned fan of Olympique Marseille.

Kylian Mbappé

However, there is a recurring core thread that runs throughout the book which is Kylian Mbappé, and how his life and career have been influenced by the events occurring around him in French football before he would ultimately influence them himself. Being brought up in the Paris suburb town of Bondy, part of the 93rd department of Seine-Saint-Denis, which has an unfair infamous reputation placed upon it due to its high number of immigrant families living in the area, the book details how the effects on French society and within football have influenced his career and decisions in his life. When the book talks about the influence of dual nationals, Mbappé can relate to this due to his father who has Cameroonian heritage, and his mother who has Algerian parents. Also, when the topic of France’s excellent youth development is focused upon, especially that organised in the famous youth academy of Clairefontaine, Mbappé again is referenced due to his two-year stay at the FFF-ran football campus. In addition, his rise through the Monaco youth teams and eventual debut are mentioned, before his breakout as a teenager in the Principality before becoming one of the most famous players on the planet due to his big-money move to PSG, and subsequent global impact in the World Cup, and that career-defining World Cup final goal.

Overall, Sacré Bleu is an incredibly fascinating book which details French football and French society between the two World Cup victories and provides further illumination to the peaks and troughs which occurred between the two world title wins. Throughout the book, Spiro talks to many people involved throughout the process, both who influenced events on the field (such as Emmanuel Petit, Robert Pires, Liliam Thuram) and within the FFF (such as the late Gérard Houllier), to help explain how French football developed throughout that historical period of football for a country that was perhaps not known for its football partisanship to Les Bleus in the past. I would highly recommend reading it as it is very well written and full of information from someone who has been deeply involved in French football throughout that crazy period of time. It is also brilliant to find a book written about French football as there doesn’t seem to be many books out there currently about French football in general in the English language.

Should you wish to know more about the book, Matthew did a podcast with the excellent Outside Write podcast series, in which he discussed the contents of the book further. The link to the podcast can be found below:

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