France: Fear, Faith and Football

As a stadium that has witnessed triumph and tragedy prepares to host Euro 2016, can the beautiful game unite France once again?

On the evening of Friday, 13 November 2015, two men set off for work at the Stade de France. Though neither were born in France, both were fans of the country's football team, and regarded the national stadium as a sacred place representing all that was best about modern, multicultural France.

Manuel Colaco Dias, a Portuguese-born chauffeur, picked up his passengers in the early evening - a group of France fans who knew him and requested him by name. They liked his genial manner and habit of chatting knowledgeably about football on the long drive to the game. He had made the trip to the Stade de France many times.

For security guard Salim Toorabally, it was his first time at the stadium. It was the sort of bitterly cold evening he had never known before he left the palm-fringed shores of his native Mauritius in the 1990s, but the friendly rivalry between the French and German fans, and the sight of beaming children with painted faces, kindled a warm glow inside him. Through a thick cocoon of thermal clothing, he dimly registered the vibrating of his phone. He burrowed a gloved hand into his pocket. It was a text from Yza, his 15-year-old daughter.

“Papa,” it read. “Be careful this evening. I have a feeling something bad could happen.”

The dream of '98

Work began on the Stade de France, the flagship venue for the 1998 World Cup, in May 1995. The district chosen was Saint-Denis, one of Paris' notorious banlieues: chaotic, impoverished suburbs synonymous with unemployment, deprivation and racial tension.

When Smail Zidane, father of the brilliant French footballer Zinedine, came to France in the 1950s, he worked on a building site in Saint-Denis just yards from the future site of the stadium, and slept there too because he didn't have enough money for rent.

As he lay among the bricks and girders, he could scarcely have dreamed that on that same soil, four decades later, his son would be feted as a national hero.

Construction work on the Stade de France took 31 months to complete

Construction work on the Stade de France took 31 months to complete

For many French people, the late 1990s were hard years. “The big problem was that for the young generation, my generation, integration was not as good any more,” says French football writer Julien Laurens.

“Our dads had jobs but we were not sure what the future held for us. There was a sense of, 'What are we going to do next?' You went to school and you were already a failure because school was not for you. You went for a job interview and there was no job for you because you came from a bad area. The future looked really gloomy, especially if you were an immigrant."

There was a lack of patriotism. What is it to be French when your parents are from Spain, Senegal, Mali, Italy, Eastern Europe, wherever?”

The France team of 1998, with many players from immigrant backgrounds, offered an obvious symbolic counterpoint, but they were not expected to do well. They were ranked 18th in the world, had lost a pre-tournament friendly to Russia, and scraped draws against Sweden and Morocco.

Public opinion was strongly against manager Aime Jacquet, a 56-year-old former soldier who had narrowly escaped deployment to the Algerian War, but was nonetheless well used to the military metaphor of siege mentality and staring down the barrel.

Jean-Marie Le Pen led the Front National party from its foundation in 1972 until 2011

Jean-Marie Le Pen led the Front National party from its foundation in 1972 until 2011

It was against this pessimistic backdrop that Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party, denounced the multiracial Bleus as “artificial” and “not a real French team”. It was clear they were fighting for more than the World Cup trophy.

Days before their first match, Jacquet gathered his men at their training camp at Clairefontaine, just south-west of Paris. “I want us to be together in this,” he said, according to football magazine FourFourTwo. “What is going to happen is so important - I don’t think you have fully realised yet.”

Paris, city of metropolitan cynicism, was the centre of scepticism about the national team, so the decision was taken to stage France's first match in Marseille. In front of a more favourable crowd, Jacquet's side beat South Africa 3-0.

Further victories over Saudi Arabia and Denmark ensured their passage to the knockout stages, before a goal by defender Laurent Blanc defeated Paraguay in the last 16.

The quarter-final was a nervy confrontation with three-time world champions Italy. After 120 goalless minutes, France won a penalty shootout 4-3.

“That was the turning point,” Laurens says. “Suddenly people started believing, not just in the team but in their own country, themselves. The country really united and it was like there were no differences any more; posh people and poor people, middle class and working class. In places where there was barely a village, people were [celebrating] in the streets."

It was like, this team defines our country. They're from different countries, like you and me. This is us, all of us.”

Even the squad, insulated from the outside world at Clairefontaine, began to realise they were part of something extraordinary.

“We could see what was happening,” remembers Thierry Henry, then a 20-year-old winger of French Caribbean heritage who would go on to become his country's leading goalscorer.

“I think what it was really down to was that French people could relate to the team. Because of the different heritages through the team, whoever you were and whatever your background, you could see yourself in that team. It was an amazing feeling.”

Croatia were beaten 2-1 in the semi-finals, leaving just one obstacle in France's path: Brazil. The hosts were underdogs: Brazil were the defending champions and the world's number-one-ranked team.

To most French people of a certain generation, the 1998 final remains a defining moment in their lives, one of those rare occasions when the trajectory of an individual life collides with the flashbulbs and front pages of history.

“I think everyone in France remembers where they were that day,” says Vincent Duluc, a football writer for L'Equipe, who attended the final.

Vincent Duluc, posing in front of L'Equipe's front-page coverage of France's '98 World Cup win

Vincent Duluc, posing in front of L'Equipe's front-page coverage of France's '98 World Cup win

“You remember the anticipation, counting down the hours until kick-off, who you had lunch with, what you did in the afternoon, where your family were that evening. Those things stay with you.”

France's coach made the journey from Clairefontaine to the Stade de France at a crawl, so large were the crowds lining the streets to acclaim the team.

“I remember just as we were about to walk on to the pitch seeing the Brazilian players, and thinking it was impossible that they could win because they were 11 and we were millions,” says Lilian Thuram, France's right-back that day.

Prior to 1998, France's best World Cup performance was third place, which they achieved in 1958 and 1986

Prior to 1998, France's best World Cup performance was third place, which they achieved in 1958 and 1986

What followed in the shimmer of that sultry July evening had the quality of a dream. Zidane - who hated heading the ball as a boy and had to be taught to do it when he joined a football academy aged 13 - scored two headed goals as France won 3-0. (Smail Zidane missed the match that made his son a world champion - he stayed at home to babysit his grandson.)

Thuram remembers: “The referee blew his whistle and I immediately ran towards my childhood friends, who had come to watch the match in the stands. I made a sign to them with my finger on my temple, as if to say: 'This is crazy.' We smiled at each other, and we spoke with our eyes - we couldn't hear each other speak, but we understood.”

More than a million people flooded the Champs-Elysees to acclaim the triumph of the 'black, blanc et Beur' [black, white and Arab] France team. The face of Zidane, son of an Algerian immigrant, was projected on to the Arc de Triomphe in red, white and blue, as the crowds chanted "Zidane president".

France's World Cup victory was celebrated throughout the night of 12 July on the streets of Paris

France's World Cup victory was celebrated throughout the night of 12 July on the streets of Paris

“It was only on leaving the stadium and walking through Paris that you realised just how incredible this day had been,” Duluc remembers. “It was a Tricolore-coloured national party. Not since the Liberation in 1944 had so many people thronged the streets of Paris.”

The symbolism was obvious: this was a victory not just of a team, but of a multicultural ideal.

“France '98 was a historical landmark which liberated a certain reflection on French society,” Thuram says. “Thuram, Zidane, [Marcel] Desailly - each of the players had their own story [of colonial heritage]."

In a way, in our victory the whole history of France was encapsulated. It was a very important moment for France, and one that remains a symbol.”

In the following year's European elections, the Front National, which had polled 15% in the 1997 parliamentary elections, saw its vote share shrink to 5.7%.

“Le Pen turned the team into a symbol of multicultural France in order to attack it, and then that team won, and therefore the symbol won,” says Laurent Dubois, author of Soccer Empire, a book about the 1998 France team.

The scenes of celebration were replicated across the country

The scenes of celebration were replicated across the country

“The World Cup win represented a victory for an alternative vision of France: the idea that we all come together, we all get along, and everyone can be part of this society. People remember it as a very promising and beautiful time.

"But the hope that people had at the time - that this was a representation of a new moment, of something that could change French society - has not come to pass.”

Origin of
Zinedine Zidane
France's talisman and scorer
of two goals in the 1998 final.
His Algerian parents came to
France in the 1950s. Born and
raised in La Castellane, a
suburb of Marseille.
Marcel Desailly
The rock at the heart of the
French defence. Born Odenke
Abbey in Ghana, he took the
name of his adopted father
after moving to France with his
mother. Raised in Nantes.
Frank Leboeuf
Played in the final in place of
suspended centre-back Laurent
Blanc. Born in the coastal
commune of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer,
near Marseille in the south.
Lilian Thuram
Versatile defender and scorer
of two goals in the '98 semi-final.
Born on the French Caribbean
island of Guadeloupe before
moving to Paris aged nine.
Stephane Guivarc'h
Injured in the first group game
but returned for the knockout
rounds. Played as a lone striker
for the final. Born in Concarneau,
Brittany in north-west France.
Emmanuel Petit
Scorer of the third goal in the
'98 final. The midfielder was
born in the coastal community
of Dieppe, Normandy in
north France.
Christian Karembeu
Played in midfield in the '98 final.
Born in Lifou, New Caledonia, a
French overseas territory in the
Pacific Islands. Moved to France
aged 17 on a scholarship to
study and play football.
Youri Djorkaeff
Zidane's creative midfield partner
in the '98 final. Born in Lyon in
east-central France. His father,
former player Jean Djorkaeff, is
of Kalmyk and Polish descent.
His mother is Armenian.
Didier Deschamps
The 1998 captain and now coach
of the national side. Born in the
Basque commune of Bayonne
in the Aquitaine region of
south-west France.
Fabien Barthez
France's goalkeeper and an
ever-present throughout the
World Cup. Born in Lavelanet,
a commune in the Midi-Pyrenees
region in south-west France.
Bixente Lizarazu
France's first-choice left-back
through the tournament. Born
in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, part of the
Basque province of Labourd
in south-west France.

Paradise lost

The band was barely a couple of bars into the Marseillaise, France's national anthem, when the whistling started: first in isolated snatches, then building to a deafening mass screech which seemed to have its own gravity, cascading from the stands on to the pitch. As the camera panned down the row of France's players, a look of incomprehension flickered across the features of Marcel Desailly, the captain, and Fabien Barthez, the goalkeeper. By the time they got to the second line, "Le jour de gloire est arrive" ["The day of glory has arrived"], it was already clear it was going to be anything but.

The occasion was a long-awaited friendly between France and Algeria on 6 October 2001. It was the first time the two countries had met on the football pitch since Algeria had won its independence from France in 1962 after a bloody seven-year war. The 11 September attacks, less than a month previously, had added a further layer of symbolism to a fixture already groaning under its weight.

“I felt that after 9/11, the media and the politicians wanted to frame Muslims in a negative narrative,” says Lilian Thuram, who played in the match. “Add to that the history between France and Algeria, and the fact that in France, there was generally a very negative view of Algerians, born of historical ignorance, and it was clear to me that this was a very important match.”

The game was billed as a moment of reconciliation, building on the mood of 1998, with the Stade de France once more the stage for the theatre of history. A group photo, with the France and Algeria players lining up arm in arm, was arranged to provide the defining image for the next day's front pages.

But the elaborate choreography of rapprochement was futile. Once the match kicked off, the atmosphere quickly grew toxic. Shouts of "Osama! Osama!" emanated from the terraces. Zidane's family origins made him an obvious target: his every touch was met with loud boos and chants of "Zidane harki! Zidane harki!" – a slur wrongly alleging that his father had been a traitor during the Algerian War.

“By 2001, many people in the banlieues were feeling excluded from French society, added to which football in North Africa was always politically loaded,” explains Andrew Hussey, an expert in French cultural history at the University of London, who lives in Paris.

“During Algeria's civil war in the 1990s, the football terraces were one of the few places where young people could chant slogans against the government, and some of that culture translated over into Paris. It was the wrong match, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

With Algeria being humiliated on the pitch as France romped into a 4-1 lead, and officials refusing to intervene to quell the trouble - a decision Vincent Duluc blames on “historical guilt” - something had to give. In the 76th minute, hundreds of Algeria fans invaded the pitch and forced the match to be abandoned.

“It was an intense moment,” says Laurent Dubois.

The Stade de France had been sacralised by this incredible national parable that had unfolded there in 1998. What happened in 2001 soiled the symbolism of the place.”

The France players streamed from the pitch, fearing for their safety. Only Thuram remained - eyes wild with anger, remonstrating with the pitch invaders.

“I was furious - the kids didn't understand the political impact of their actions,” he explains. “It would all feed into that vicious cycle of mistrust. You can't denounce racism and then just go and shoot yourself in the foot like that.

“So I tried to grab one of the kids - everyone thought I wanted to fight him, but I was trying to reason with him. I said to him: 'Stop! You don't understand what you're doing. You don't understand that ultimately this is going to be used against you.'”

Thuram was right - and he was too late. Days later Le Pen announced his candidacy for president outside the stadium - citing the pitch invasion as proof that the integration of North African immigrants had failed. The Front National would win 17% of the vote in the 2002 election - advancing to the run-off as the second most popular party. In just three years, the stadium that had enshrined a multicultural dream had become a springboard for the politics of the far right.

France's Under-17 side continued the nation's international success in the late 1990s and early 2000s by winning the 2001 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago

France's Under-17 side continued the nation's international success in the late 1990s and early 2000s by winning the 2001 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago

“It punctured the optimism of '98,” says Duluc. “If the France of 'black, blanc, Beur' hadn't fundamentally changed, it was a reminder that it was a fragmented France, not a united one. The identities that came together in that '98 team had not enmeshed in society as a whole."

It was a wake-up call. It showed that even if people had been born here, even if they were French, they would choose their Algerian identity.”

That fact hadn't gone unnoticed at the Algerian Football Federation, which began lobbying Fifa to change its rules on international eligibility. It argued that players who had represented one country at junior level should be able to switch allegiances and represent another nation at senior level. When Fifa amended its regulations in 2003, it ushered an exodus of French-born players from the country's youth teams to the African nations of their parentage.

Four members of that U17 side from 2001 would go on to represent African nations: Hassan Yebda (Algeria, 8), Jacques Faty (Senegal, 5), Mourad Meghni (Algeria, 10) and Emerse Fae (Ivory Coast, 12)

Four members of that U17 side from 2001 would go on to represent African nations: Hassan Yebda (Algeria, 8), Jacques Faty (Senegal, 5), Mourad Meghni (Algeria, 10) and Emerse Fae (Ivory Coast, 12)

“The national football team became a battlefield for racial and social tensions through the 2000s,” Hussey says. “The disintegration of the team was directly linked to the disintegration of the social contract in France.”

As the team began to unravel - crashing out in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup and the quarter-final of Euro 2004 amid rumours of dressing-room disharmony - so too did the image of France as a harmonious multicultural society. And nowhere was the ugly reality bubbling to the surface more obviously than in the neighbourhoods where most of the France players had grown up - the banlieues.

“There's a massive difference between the centre of Paris and the world of the banlieues - they really are two separate worlds,” Hussey explains. “You've got the physical exclusion, and then you've got a kind of social exclusion, which is related to things like unemployment, poverty and [inadequate] healthcare."

By 2005, the politics had become more embittered, more nihilistic, and the banlieues were a powderkeg.”

That October, two teenage boys of African immigrant origin, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, were returning home after playing football. They were chased by police into an electricity substation in the eastern banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois and were electrocuted.

The incident provoked already simmering racial tensions. Over 21 nights of intense riots, thousands of predominantly Arab youths clashed with police and torched buildings, businesses, and more than 9,000 vehicles.

Flowers and candles placed near a plaque in Clichy-sous-Bois in memory of Bouna Traore (right) and Zyed Benna

Flowers and candles placed near a plaque in Clichy-sous-Bois in memory of Bouna Traore (right) and Zyed Benna

For some in the French establishment, the football team - which, an unlikely run to the 2006 World Cup final aside, remained dogged by under-performance and chaotic infighting throughout the 2000s - was just another banlieue problem, another unsightly symptom of the disorder and disaffection of the young men from France's suburban ghettos. Tellingly, when the team imploded at the 2010 World Cup - finishing bottom of their group amid a revolt against coach Raymond Domenech - the word used by Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot was the same one Nicolas Sarkozy used to describe the rioters of 2005: "racaille", or "scum".

There remained one further trauma. In 2011, French media published leaked tapes in which officials of the French Football Federation were heard to discuss a race quota limiting the intake of black and North African players at France's youth training centres to 30%. Leading the discussions was France manager Laurent Blanc, who had played alongside Thuram and Zidane in the 1998 team.

It seemed the dream of French football was broken beyond repair. But the nightmare was still to come.

Terror at the stadium

Michael Dias, the chauffeur's son, didn't know his father was making the journey to the Stade de France that evening. After all, the 63-year-old had been retired for two years. But, in hindsight, it doesn't surprise him that his father took that job.

“He simply liked his work - that was part of his personality,” he says. “When people asked for his help, he was happy to provide it. He continued to accept jobs because he liked the social aspect that the job offered him, the simple pleasure of sharing conversation with passengers.”

A trip to the Stade de France would have held a particular attraction for Manuel Dias, a lifelong football fan, who came to France aged 18 to escape Portugal's authoritarian regime.

“It was one day during 1966 that he first discovered his passion for football,” Michael remembers fondly. “After an hour’s walk to the neighbouring village, he discovered the World Cup match between Portugal and England on a black-and-white television in the corner of a cafe.

Manuel Dias (left) with his wife

Manuel Dias (left) with his wife

“From then on he was hooked. If we went out for dinner, if Sporting Lisbon were playing he’d have an earpiece so he could listen to the match. If it was a close match, he could barely eat.”

The team of his adopted country was especially dear to his heart.

“He was Portuguese by birth, but the French national team represented something quite particular for him,” Michael explains. “It was his team, the one he loved above even Portugal. I remember how thrilled he was in 1998."

He loved going to watch the matches at the Stade de France - he loved the atmosphere of the place.”

As Manuel Dias neared the stadium, Salim Toorabally was checking tickets on the turnstile of Gate L. A little spooked by the text from his daughter, he replied to assure her he would be especially vigilant. It was not a promise he took lightly.

Minutes later, a young man tried to sidle through Salim's turnstile behind another spectator. Salim stopped him and asked to see his ticket. The young man replied he had to go in - his friend was waiting with his ticket inside the ground.

The young man was baby-faced, with a few wispy hairs on his upper lip and chin. He was 20 but looked 16. He was a trainee electrician and a football fan. His name was Bilal Hadfi.

“I'm sorry, it doesn't work like that,” Salim told him, and turned him away. But the young man was persistent. He loitered near Salim's gate for 10 minutes, watching how he dealt with the steady stream of spectators, then went to try his luck at another gate. Alarmed, Salim alerted his colleague, instructing him not to let him through under any circumstance.

By now, Manuel Dias had dropped off his passengers. He had a little ritual that he cherished whenever he did the run to the stadium. He parked up, ate his snack in the car, and at 21:00 telephoned his wife. Then he got out to buy a coffee and soak up the atmosphere of the big match. He was turning back to his car to listen to the game on the radio when he crossed paths with Bilal Hadfi.

Bilal Hadfi was one of three suicide bombers who targeted the Stade de France

Bilal Hadfi was one of three suicide bombers who targeted the Stade de France

Up in the press box, Vincent Duluc heard the first explosion. “It was an extremely strange explosion because it made such an odd noise, almost like a gust. We said to ourselves, 'that's weird', but no-one moved, no-one was perturbed.”

Minutes later, there was a second blast as one of Hadfi's accomplices detonated his bomb outside Gate H.

“That one sent a chill up your spine,” remembers Duluc, whose children were in the crowd that night.

"At that moment, a journalist beside me in the press box got up to get a look at the presidential box, where Francois Hollande was sitting, and almost immediately he saw Hollande get up and leave the stadium. That was when we knew something was up.”

Most in the stadium remained oblivious. The noise of the second bomb was greeted with a ripple of shouts by fans who apparently thought it was a loud firework or flare. A startled look briefly flashed across the face of France left-back Patrice Evra as he dribbled upfield, but he passed the ball to a team-mate and the match settled back into its normal rhythm.

Mobile reception and internet in the stadium is erratic. After a few minutes, an announcement was made over the tannoy: “There has been an explosion in a brasserie in the vicinity of the stadium.” France's second goal of the game, scored by Andre-Pierre Gignac, was celebrated no less vociferously than usual.

It was only after a third bomber detonated his device in a nearby side street, shortly before the end of the match, and another announcement over the tannoy admitted there had been "external incidents", that panic began to spread among a crowd whose memories of the January 2015 attacks in Paris - including a shooting at the offices of magazine Charlie Hebdo and a siege at a Jewish supermarket - were still fresh.

Spectators were informed the east exit had been closed and they should leave via the north, south and west exits. But their tickets didn't specify which exits were which - instead carrying only the letters of their designated gate - and the panicked crowd rushed en masse for the same exits, some of which were indeed closed.

“People were really frightened, there was a crush for the exits,” remembers Duluc. “There were these big crowd surges, people were yelling: 'They’re back, they’re back!'”

With fans unsure how to leave the stadium, or fearful of heading into the dark streets and subways of Paris, many instead made instinctively for what felt like the safest place: the football pitch. The green rectangle of turf that had since 1998 served as the stage for a nation's triumphs and disasters became a sanctuary.

Note: Times reported as Paris local time (GMT +1) on 13 November 2015

Note: Times reported as Paris local time (GMT +1) on 13 November 2015

Across town, Michael Dias was having dinner with his girlfriend as news began to filter through that Paris was under attack.

“I remember saying to my girlfriend: 'Have you seen? Somebody's been killed at the Stade de France,'” he recalls.

“I continued to eat my dinner, saw the snippets of other news coming in, from the Bataclan and so on. I didn't realise my dad was caught up in it. But I felt a certain stress gradually creep up on me, without really understanding what it was. In hindsight, they say that sometimes when someone close to you is hurt you feel it. I remember that feeling.

“I returned home, turned on the news channel and followed that for an hour. After an hour I called my mum, to let her know what was going on, and she said: 'Your father is there, he’s at the Stade de France and I can’t get hold of him.'”

In the stadium's changing rooms, two France players were having the same awful moment of realisation. As news of the attacks was broken to the two teams by Noel le Graet, president of the French Football Federation, and Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff, forward Antoine Griezmann remembered his sister Maud was attending a concert by the band Eagles of Death Metal and realised she was among those held hostage at the Bataclan. Midfielder Lassana Diarra, meanwhile, was worried he couldn't get hold of his cousin Asta Diakite.

At 23:45, the last of the huddled supporters were evacuated from the Stade de France pitch. They emerged defiant into one of Paris' darkest nights, singing the Marseillaise.

Michael Dias kept calling his father's phone, feeling a nauseous wave of panic rise every time he heard the automated voicemail recording.

He called the police and the local hospitals. There was still no news of his father. “The hours passed in a kind of despair,” he remembers.

The Germany team decided they did not want to leave the stadium to return to their hotel, which had been the subject of a bomb threat earlier that day.

In a gesture of solidarity, the France players insisted on staying in the changing rooms with their opponents until 03:00. Mattresses were dragged on to the linoleum floor and nestled among ice baths and recovery bikes. No-one slept.

German sports commentator Bernd Schmelzer tweeted this photo from inside the changing rooms at the Stade de France on the morning of 14 November

German sports commentator Bernd Schmelzer tweeted this photo from inside the changing rooms at the Stade de France on the morning of 14 November

Finally, Griezmann received news that his sister had escaped from the Bataclan. Diarra learnt that his cousin had been killed in the gun attack on the Petit Cambodge restaurant. She was buying groceries at the shop next door.

“She was like a big sister to me,” Diarra wrote in a statement.

At 10:00 the next day, the Portuguese government contacted the Dias family with the news they had been dreading: Manuel had been killed in the initial bomb blast. Of the 130 people killed across Paris that evening, he was the sole victim at the Stade de France.

“It was football that thrilled you, moved you, even made you cry, but occupied your thoughts at every moment,” Michael Dias said in his eulogy to his father.

“You left us at a football stadium - the stadium of your France. I like to think that was your destiny.”

Playing for peace

Paris is a city on edge. The detritus of grief is still pooled in the Place de la Republique: cards, candles, teddies, flowers. At night, the bars and terrasses that once thrummed with the buzz and chatter of nocturnal city life are quieter now.

“For the first couple of weeks after the attacks, it felt like a city at war,” Andrew Hussey remembers. “There were jeeps full of paratroopers careering round.

“Now there's something else: a sense of unreality. People are getting on with their lives, but there's also a sense that something bad is just about to happen. There's a massive conflict, and a lot of difficult questions, but people don't know what the answer is.”

Paris is home to 1.7 million Muslims and 280,000 Jews - more than in any other European city. But it is a city unsure how to preserve harmony between those two communities, uncertain of how to reach its young men - many in the ever-more impenetrable underworld of the banlieues - and turn them away from the temptation of religious conflict.

I travel through Paris' spiralling labyrinth of autoroutes to Alfortville, an unremarkable concrete precinct on the edge of the south-eastern banlieues - the sort of grey place where tedium can easily become something darker. It was here, in a dingy motel, that a cell of six young men plotted the November attacks. And it is here, on a ground far humbler than the Stade de France, that one football club is trying to promote peace through sport.

UJA Maccabi Paris was formed by a merger of UJA Alfortville, the local Armenian youth club, and Maccabi Paris, the traditional amateur club of Paris' Jewish community. They play with the Star of David on their chests. But the young people who wear the shirts are Muslims, Christians and atheists as well as Jews, all playing on the same team.

“We are a motley bunch, open to everyone,” says the club's president, Pascal Laloux, a stocky, garrulous businessman, himself Jewish.

Pascal Laloux

Pascal Laloux

"The philosophy of the club is simple. We don't concern ourselves with a player's origin or religion, all we ask is that they embody the values of fraternity.”

On a drizzly Tuesday evening, at a training session for the men's first team - who play in France's fifth tier - the tackles fly hard and fast, and so do the in-jokes, often no less scything. But underpinning it all are the bonds of kinship and respect: the players arrive with a hearty "Bonsoir, coach!" on their lips and exchange handshakes before training.

“We are family,” says midfielder Kevin Zonzon, a Muslim of French Caribbean origin. “To us, it doesn't matter whether you're Jewish, Christian, Muslim. We are in each other's lives all the time, we hang out often and everyone respects each other. For me it's a strong signal [for society].”

His mate, centre-back Maurice Hongla, who grew up in a Cameroonian Christian family, chimes in: “We all coexist happily. From time to time we talk about our different religions, but it's all positive. We all get along well, we laugh and joke together, we take the mickey out of each other, that's just how life is around here.

“We are united, a band of brothers. When we step out on to the pitch, we are one, we lay it on the line for each other, and that's the most important thing.”

Goalkeeper Julien Nouaille, a Catholic who crosses himself before every match, often eats a halal meal with his Muslim team-mates.

But it is not just about promoting tolerance and unity. Maccabi also gives young men structure and direction in their lives. Some of the players were involved in petty crime before they joined the club.

“What we do here is a kind of social work,” Pascal says. “From a young age, we provide a small part of their education: to respect the opposition, to respect the referee, to arrive on time, to be quiet when the coach is speaking, to warm up together.

“And we notice that all these lads, when you give them a framework to work with, embrace it. We know that if they turn up to training and the match on Saturday, they're not going to get up to any nonsense, because they have the discipline of sport.”

This is a club that has passed very close to terror's chilling orbit. For 35 years, Pascal Laloux was the owner of the Bataclan, the concert hall where 89 people were killed on 13 November. He sold up just two months before the attacks and knew many of the people in the hall that evening. The players - who along with Pascal were in Guadeloupe for a French Cup match the night of the attacks - regularly had their pre-match meal in the venue’s cafe.

“I experienced the attacks from afar. I was outraged, I was horrified, I was stunned, but I didn’t go through one tenth of what some people went through,” Pascal says.

Many would have been absorbed by grief - or hatred. But Pascal has thrown himself back into football, more convinced than ever of its unifying power.

“I didn't create a football club in order to bring people together,” he says. “It just happens naturally."

When you see a young Moshe and a young Hamed and a young Mamadou playing on the same team, hugging each other in their arms, that’s the power that football has.”

In the process, Maccabi has done for Pascal what he has done for a generation of young Parisians: it has given him a purpose, and saved him from sinking at the most difficult time of his life.

“After the attacks, if I hadn't football, I think I would have been even more distressed,” he says. “I think I would have sold up [and moved abroad].

“The club forced me to stay in a daily reality. You are an important figure in so many people's lives that you just have to get on with it.”

As Pascal drives me back to the metro station, we pass the Bataclan, scarred with bullet-holes and cordoned off behind police tape.

“Of course, to see the concert hall that I devoted 35 years of my life to [like that], you say to yourself, 'Bloody hell'. But it's just material, there is no emotion in material things,” he says.

His face brightens. “Take the match we played on Saturday. It was a must-win game. We were 2-0 down and then five minutes into the second half one of our players was sent off. I said to the lads: ‘Come on, we're going to win this match.’ And we won it 3-2. That's emotion.

“Watching all the players together after the third goal, you can't help but feel joy in your heart.”

The future

Back at the Stade de France, workers are busily putting the finishing touches to the stadium before Euro 2016 - the first major tournament France has hosted since the 1998 World Cup. Flags are laid on seats, the exterior is bedecked in the multi-coloured livery of sponsors. Other preparations are more sombre. On 19 May, France’s parliament voted to extend the state of emergency, imposed following the November attacks, to cover the championship.

“We know that [the Islamic State group] is planning more attacks, and that France is clearly a target,” Patrick Calvar, head of the national intelligence agency, told the defence committee. “The question, when it comes to the threat, is not if, but when and where.”

Everyone fears there will be an attack at Euro 2016. In the host cities, emergency services have been rehearsing France's worst nightmare in eerily realistic training exercises which replicate bombings or chemical attacks on stadiums. Never before has a tournament been staged amid such a backdrop of fear.

Policemen take part in a mock attack exercise before Euro 2016

Policemen take part in a mock attack exercise before Euro 2016

“We know that danger exists,” says Vincent Duluc. “As long as football encourages us all to live together in harmony, the terrorists will choose to wage war on it. They want to divide society, whereas the goal of football is to unite it.”

Across France, the divisive effects of the attacks are already being felt.

Opinion polls show that, for the first time, the Front National - led by Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter Marine - is likely to be the most popular party in the first round of next year's presidential election, with about 30% of the vote.

“The context now is very similar to 1998,” says Julien Laurens. “There’s a lot of unrest, there are problems in rough areas, again. There are issues with terrorism - people don’t feel safe. There’s a feeling that because of what happened, we have discrimination again, which had stopped for a while and now is coming back."

We need France to do well [in the Euros], to do something special because it will bring people together.”

Whether the team is capable of shouldering that burden is unclear. Managed by 1998 captain Didier Deschamps, they are among the favourites for the tournament, but friendly results have been erratic - including defeats by Albania and England.

As so often, the team have found it easier to reflect the French public's divisions than to capture their support. Star striker Karim Benzema - a Muslim of Algerian origin - has been banished from the squad as he is investigated for his part in an alleged plot to blackmail fellow international Mathieu Valbuena.

Opinion is divided on whether this squad, talented and ethnically diverse but unproven and overshadowed by the calamities of the recent past, can recapture the spirit of that magical summer of '98.

“I think the moment where the eyes of the country were on the football team, in 1998, is behind us,” says Duluc.

“Everything that has happened since - especially the 2010 World Cup - has left its mark on the hearts of the French public. For many supporters of France, the team have betrayed their confidence - they have broken something that cannot be repaired. It would take the young players in the team to do something really special for us to see the same phenomenon again.”

But Thierry Henry - who still remembers the moment during the 1998 celebrations when an elderly woman thanked him for giving the country its finest hour since the Liberation - has more faith in his successors.

“Sometimes in France we have doubts about whether we should support a team at the beginning, but then as soon as you get good results, the French population usually back the team,” he says.

“This team has to create that togetherness, and it looks like they are going to have a good tournament, so I think we will see that togetherness we saw in 1998.”

France's 2016 side includes players of Senegalese, Martinican, Guinean, Guadeloupean, Malian, Romani and Alsatian descent

France's 2016 side includes players of Senegalese, Martinican, Guinean, Guadeloupean, Malian, Romani and Alsatian descent

Like most countries, France oscillates between extremes in its choice of national manager. The appointment of Deschamps, a natural authoritarian who has much more in common with military man Jacquet than amateur astrologer Domenech, is no accident. Just as in 1998, there is a feeling that what is at stake this summer is too important to be left to chance - that the 23 players selected are doing battle for France's soul.

“Of course, football cannot solve problems which are fundamentally political in nature,” Thuram says. “But it allows us to share emotions, to be happy together. Football has the power to bring people together when you win. It generates enormous feelings of joy.

"It will be exactly that scenario in France if the French team wins, and it won't just be the football fans who are caught up in it - it will be a national thing.

"If France wins, it's a positive thing for everyone - people are happy. If people are happy, that can make them much more open to diversity. Maybe then they won't fall into the trap of 'them and us' that politicians try to construct.”

On 10 June, France play Romania in the tournament's opening match. Eighteen years after he witnessed the fairytale of 1998, seven months after the nightmare of the November bombings, Vincent Duluc will once again take his seat in the press box of the Stade de France.

View from inside the Stade de France

View from inside the Stade de France

“For the moment, it is the stadium of the attacks for me,” he says. “Of course, it will be weird to go back - it will be hard not to think of what happened [in November], where I parked, what I did.”

This time, he will not be taking his children with him.

“I managed to get tickets in the ballot, but I made sure I requested them at the Parc des Princes,” he says. “It may seem like a small thing, but I think my kids would rather go there than go back to the Stade de France. I told myself that would be easier.”

He has, through work, two tickets for a match at the Stade de France that lie, ungifted, in a desk drawer.

“I’m not sure who I can give them to,” he admits. “Who will want to come after what happened last time? It’s difficult to give people seats and tell them everything will be OK. How can you guarantee that?”

Michael Dias will watch the France-Romania match from his living room. He was invited to attend the game as a guest of honour, but declined.

“I’m a big football fan and I enjoy the big matches - for sure I will watch some of the games on TV,” he says. “But I will not go back to the Stade de France."

How could I feel comfortable watching football a few yards from where my father was killed?”

Manuel Dias loved the French football team. But what he loved above all was what that blue jersey has in its best moments come to represent: tolerance, openness, camaraderie, fraternite.

Six years after he hung that jersey on the peg for the last time, Thierry Henry hasn't forgotten what it means.

“One of the [best] things about this summer will be having that feeling again,” he says. “Where everybody feels like they are French, and we can all win together.”