Their reach is extraordinary. There are some 30,000 coaches in the Paris banlieues for 235,000 registered players, more than a third of them under 18. It gives the sport and the coaches important social roles. “These kids may struggle at school, but by being excellent soccer players, they become legitimate and respectable,” Nazareth said.
That is what Riccardi hopes to instill in his charges; it is the example Mbappé sets. At 19, with the world at his feet, he is famed for his maturity, his intelligence, his politeness. He has been invited to the Élysée Palace, no less, to discuss sport in minority communities with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. “He carries himself well on and off the field,” said Riccardi, with no little pride.
France has, for years, had an awkward relationship with its national team, not only because of a litany of poor recent performances in tournaments, but also because of a string of scandals: a player strike during the 2010 World Cup; a blackmail case centering on a sex tape; resentment that several players do not sing the national anthem before games.
At the heart of the controversies were hints of social prejudice. The players who led the strike in 2010 grew up in the banlieues. Karim Benzema, theoretically the bad guy in the blackmail case, is from a deprived background in Lyon. Hugo Lloris, the country’s captain, the middle-class son of a lawyer from Nice, always sings “La Marseillaise.” Benzema and Franck Ribéry, boys from the banlieues, did not.
“The shortcut goes like this: Soccer in France means working classes, which means banlieues, which means thugs,” said Stéphane Beaud, a professor of sociology at the University of Poitiers, who has written extensively about the links between the French national team and immigration.