France players inspiring youth in Paris’ poorer suburbs

The government has failed to tackle poverty and unemployment but residents hope for a better future.

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Bondy, France – In the northern Paris suburb of Bondy, the local football club is buzzing with activity.

Children and teenagers are being put through their paces by a coach shouting instructions from the touchline.

Young players dribble footballs between cones or tackle each other in playoffs. They’re competing to join the AS Bondy club, hoping it could put them on the same path to World Cup glory as Bondy’s most famous son – Kylian Mbappe.

Nineteen-year-old Mbappe, the youngest member of France’s squad for World Cup 2018, is already making history. In the team’s opening group game against Peru, Mbappe became the youngest French player to score in a World Cup.

The striker’s sensational rise from a precocious child player to professional star has enthralled youngsters in Bondy which is one of Paris’ poorer suburbs that fan out beyond the capital’s ring road, far from the city’s elegant tree-lined boulevards and famous tourist attractions.

In neighbourhoods where most people say the odds are stacked against them, Mbappe’s career has proved to them that dreams can come true.

“It makes me proud because he comes from the suburbs like me,” 14-year-old Yanis Jean told Al Jazeera between trials. “I want to be like him one day.” 

AS Bondy football club holding trials for youth [Al Jazeera]
AS Bondy football club holding trials for youth [Al Jazeera]

These neighbourhoods are packed with social housing, unemployment is high and opportunities low. Successive governments have failed to fully address the issues of the suburbs, often preferring to ignore parts of France viewed with suspicion by some.

But there is also a sense of community and pride in the suburbs and that is rarely talked about in France.

The national football squad consists of several players from the suburbs. Blaise Matuidi and N’Golo Kante, like Mbappe, have become role models, inspiring young players like those at AS Bondy.

“It makes me so happy because Mbappe comes from here so when people ask me where I play, I say AS Bondy and they immediately know where I come from,” 17-year-old Loutfi Bechareff proudly said.

Test your football knowledge. Take the World Cup 2018 quiz 
Test your football knowledge. Take the World Cup 2018 quiz 

The last time France won the World Cup was in 1998. It was a victory full of symbolism and promise. The multicultural team was seen as a uniting force and a vision of harmonious diversity. 

Zinedine Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants, became a national hero.

Players like Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram became household names. It seemed as it the feel-good factor would last forever and many people in the suburbs hoped the champions’ popularity would help reduce discrimination and improve lives.

“We all thought 1998 would transform everything, no more racism, everything would get better,” 42-year-old Karim said sitting in a cafe in Bondy.

“No one believes that now but it’s great the guys are playing and have a good chance. We’re proud.”

The 1998 final was played at the imposing Stade de France in the northern suburbs, just a few kilometres away from the more modest football pitch in another suburb, Aubervilliers.

A week before France’s opening game against Australia at Russia 2018, players from Aubervilliers and Aulnay-sous-Bois were warming up for an under-18 match.

Volunteers prepared a barbecue and laid out plastic cups for soft drinks for a small post-match celebration to mark the end of the season.

Aulnay’s coach Dorian Chacon, who has been working with the team for two years, said it could be a challenge at times convincing young players to stay focused.

Aulnay's coach Dorian Chacon (left) said it could be a challenge at times convincing young players to stay focused [Al Jazeera]
Aulnay’s coach Dorian Chacon (left) said it could be a challenge at times convincing young players to stay focused [Al Jazeera]

“They’re good kids but, at times, I’m part coach and part social worker because life isn’t always easy for them and many lose interest in football if they realise they won’t make a big career of it,” he said.

“But I tell them, it’s not just about being the at the top. There are many leagues and many things they can do.”

In 2017, a young man was allegedly attacked by police officers in the Aulnay-Sous-Bois suburb. Mothers and young people marched through the streets to protest against what they said was daily police oppression.

According to Dorian, young footballers he coached were fed up and frustrated by the constant police checks and the negative image of the suburbs.

“People think everyone in the suburbs is scum but that is not true. Those footballers [national team players] came from misery like us and now they are successful,” said Dylan, one of Aulnay’s young footballers. 

“All the big players come from the suburbs. Like Sissoko, who played for France, he came from the same neighbourhood as me and he’s not scum. He pays his way.” 

Source: Al Jazeera