John Lichfield: The heirs of Zidane break down barriers to claim birthright

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The Independent Football

Most Fridays I collect my 13-year-old daughter from her athletics class, just outside the Paris ring road or Boulevard Priphrique. She runs and jumps in a stadium which is within the dreaded suburbs, or "banlieues" (a source of cosmic dread to many Parisians and the scene once again this week of nasty, but limited, riots).

As I wait in the tiny, concrete stand, a score of 14- and 15-year-old boys gather for football training. They are white, brown and black. They wrestle and punch one another and trade complicated insults. They also come up to me and politely shake my hand. Maybe they think that I am a scout for Manchester United. Maybe I should be.

It was on this very pitch at the Stade Louison Bobet, the training ground for the Levallois Sporting Club, that a 15-year-old boy from Ivory Coast began his ascent to the pinnacle of the football world 14 years ago. His name was Didier Drogba.

This week I was talking to another group of 15- and 16-year-old boys of African and North African origin in Villiers-le-Bel, 12 miles further north. They were mourning the deaths of two friends in an accident with a police car, and threatening vengeance. That same night, 49 policemen were injured, mostly by gunfire, in riots involving boys as young as 10.

In 1998, when those boys were babies, a brown, white and black France team won the World Cup, generating extravagant hopes of a new era of racial and social harmony.

At a France-Morocco friendly match two weeks' ago, there was a very small crowd at the Stade de France (admittedly at the peak of the transport strikes). Almost the entire crowd was wearing Morocco shirts and waving Moroccan flags. You can bet that most of them had not travelled from Morocco.

They or a large minority of them whistled at the French national anthem and whistled every move of almost every France player. They made an exception, however, for three young men who have just broken through into the France team, which, courtesy of two defeats for Scotland, qualified for Euro 2008.

The three young men are the belated heirs of Zinedine Zidane: the first players of North African origin to reach the uppermost slopes of French football since the great "Zizou". The France squad has been dominated for several years by wonderful players of French Caribbean origin (Henry, Thuram, Gallas, Saha, Malouda) or African origin (Makelele, Vieira). There is now also a handful of very promising, young white players, not only Franck Ribry but also Jrmy Toulalan and Franois Clerc, both from Lyons.

French kids of North African origin are as football-daft as white and black French kids. Until now, they have mostly failed to break through to the top level. Zidane was a great player the greatest of his generation but also a great exception.

Suddenly, three wonderful young French players of Arab origin have arrived together, like buses on a non-strike day.

They are aged 19 or 20. They represent each of the three great "Beur" French-born Arab communities in France (those with Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian parents or grandparents). All are spoken of as big-money targets for the Premier League or La Liga or Serie A in the next close season.

Karim Benzema, 20 this month, is a tall, mobile, intelligent striker a more graceful version of the young Nicolas Anelka. He has scored 12 goals in 19 appearances for Lyons this season and three goals in eight for France.

His parents are of Moroccan origin. He was born in the suburbs of Lyons. Arsne Wenger is rumoured in the French press to be preparing a big bid next summer. So are Real Madrid and Barcelona. Do you have €30m (21.5m) to spare, Monsieur Wenger? Lyons will not let this handsome local hero part for less.

Samir Nasri, 20, is a darting, daring, offensive, baby-faced midfielder, who plays for his home-town club, Marseilles. He, like Zidane, is of Algerian origin. He, like Zidane (and Eric Cantona) was born in the tough, northern districts of Marseilles. He is also rumoured to be a target for Arsenal and Barcelona.

Hatem Ben-Arfa, 20, is a striker in the Thierry Henry mould, a great dribbler with a talent for spectacular goals (and for missing easy ones). He was born in the tough Paris banlieue of Montrouge, of Tunisian parents. He also plays for Lyons. French-press rumour links him with Manchester United.

Hopes that the 1998 World Cup victory of a white, brown and black team would instantly begin a new era of social and racial relations came to nothing. The success of a handful of talented footballers did not reconcile the great mass of young brown and black French people to social exclusion. Why should it? It was depressing all the same to hear those young French-Moroccans booing white and black France players.

And yet and yet. These things take time. The true, political achievement of the 1998 team was to educate subliminally the rising generations of the white, majority population (just as the black footballers of Britain have done).

A generation of French youngsters of all races has been brought up with brown and black heroes. Little by little if not yet enough they have helped to wash away barriers to the sons and daughters of immigrants in other areas of French life.

Even on the television. Even in government.

As almost the sole standard-bearer for second- and third-generation North Africans, an enormous, artificial pressure was placed on Zidane. Now, a trio of great "Beur" footballers has broken through at the same time. They could, quietly and without fuss, have more social impact than Zizou on the attitudes of young French people, both white and brown.

All have long international careers ahead of them. A decade from now, the sight of talented people of North African origin wearing the blue shirt of France will seem banal.

Brian Viner is away