12-06-2016  8:01 am      •     

LA COURNEUVE, France--Joy turned to despair Sunday as France lost to Italy in the World Cup final in a match marred by the ejection of storied French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, hailed by many as the symbol of France's emerging multicultural character.

With the game tied 1-1 midway through the second overtime period, Zidane was kicked out of the game for head-butting an Italian opponent while play was stopped. France was forced to play out the overtime with 10 men against Italy's 11, and eventually lost in a penalty kick shootout.

When Zidane led a distinctly multicultural France team to its 1998 World Cup triumph on home soil, an enraptured populace celebrated the victory as a sign of things to come. Many believed that citizens of color from France's former colonial empire would finally achieve equality with its White majority. Zidane, France's first non-White sports superstar, epitomized this belief.

But this year, France's jubilation over unexpectedly making it to the Cup final barely reached the hardened kids kicking stones in front of La Corneuve, a graffiti-streaked, urine-stained suburban Paris housing project.

The crowd mirrors the multicultural team -- many players hail from tough, immigrant neighborhoods like this. But their triumph has done little to overcome the alienation and despair that pushed youths in La Courneuve and other suburbs around France to rampage for weeks last fall, in riots that shook the nation.

"When they win, we hug each other and jump and shout and shout," said one of the teenagers, Jalil. The next day, though, it's "like always." He didn't want to give his last name because he fears the police.

His words clash with the energized optimism that has gripped French leaders and media as France advanced to Sunday's final against Italy.

Each win along the way bucked expectations and provided a welcome surprise for a nation struggling with discrimination, political scandal and stalled reforms -- and one that had little faith in the aging, struggling national team going into the Cup.

Prime Minister Dominique Villepin sought to persuade a group of high school graduates from disadvantaged schools that the World Cup wins would trickle down to them, too.

"You have the talent, the abilities, the heart. Nothing should stop you. I want you to be able to dream big," he told them, in a meeting this week focusing on France's soccer success.

The French tricolor undulates on Paris' Champs-Elysees and other avenues as the capital gussies up for Bastille Day celebrations July 14. Many hope the flags will provide a fitting backdrop for mass partying Sunday night if France wins.

But a few miles northeast of town in La Courneuve, no flags are in sight.

The French language is just one of many audible at a bus stop overflowing with shoppers after a weekly market of cheap textiles. Shop window mannequins here wear Muslim headscarves. A cluster of hair salons in the city center all specialize in African styles.

City officials don't plan to set up big screens to broadcast the final, since police say such crowds run a greater risk of seeding violence.

At the outset of the Cup, many weren't rooting for France but for Tunisia, Togo, Senegal or other countries where they trace their roots. But as the field has narrowed, more and more are cheering for Les Bleus.

When France won in 1998, the national team was hailed as an example of diversity dubbed "black, blanc, beur," or "Black, White, North African," in a play on the red-white-and-blue of the French flag.

Zidane, born in France to Algerian immigrants, epitomizes the attitude then and now.

Three of the 23 players this year are foreign-born -- Senegal's Patrick Vieira, Congo's Claude Makelele and Cameroon's Jean-Alain Boumsong. Five more have immigrant roots, from Algeria, Mali, Benin, Mauritania and Argentina. Nine others are from France's overseas departments in the Caribbean.

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen says that's too much color. He outraged many by telling sports daily L'Equipe that "the French don't feel totally represented" by the team.

Player Lilian Thuram struck back, saying, "I would say that Mr. Le Pen does not seem aware that there are French people who are Black, blond, auburn. ... We are very, very proud to be French."

Pap N'Diaye, expert in Black history at the prestigious EHESS school of social sciences in Paris, urged players to involve themselves more in civic activities.

"Blacks are present on the field, but not in leadership positions," he said in an interview with Le Monde released Saturday.

Pascale Romirez, who works at a La Courneuve unemployment office, said only concerted government efforts to improve education and training will overcome discrimination and bring down staggering 50 percent joblessness among minority youth.

"We need more than a victory in the final to get these people into the work force," she said.

For many in impoverished neighborhoods, soccer offers escape from troubled home lives and bleak prospects.

As Karim Bouziane, watching a group of boys in an informal match at a garbage-strewn park in Paris suburb Vitry-sur-Seine, said: "They can't all be Zizou."

-- The Associated Press

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