Christian Karembeu: the outsider who divided France

Christian Karembeu: the outsider who divided France

“Cultural genocide.” Those were the words of Jean-Marie Tjibaou, leader of the Kanak Independence Movement, after the French Government introduced a controversial statute in the territory of New Caledonia in 1988. The law, which redrew the islands’ political boundaries, effectively meant that the indigenous population had no say in its forthcoming regional elections.

It was already a febrile atmosphere. Ten Kanaks had just been murdered over a land dispute, with those arrested cleared of any wrongdoing by a jury containing no Melanesian members. The diktat from Paris was the last, humiliating straw.

Two days before the elections, a group of Kanak commandos raided the gendarmerie on Ouvéa Island, killing four and taking nearly 30 more hostage. They demanded the abolition of the statute, as well as a referendum on independence from France.  

The government’s response was swift and brutal. The French army stormed the coral caves to which the militants had retreated, killing 19 of the insurgents, but the Kanak Liberation Front (FLNKS) remained resolute. “Neither deaths, tears, suffering nor humiliation will stifle the cry for freedom.”  

Unlikely as it may seem, it was amongst this atmosphere of political turmoil that a teenager made his first steps as a professional footballer. Christian Karembeu had been born 18 years before the bloodshed, one of 15 children raised by Paul and Hudrenie on the island of Lifou. A natural athlete, he shone at most sports in his youth, his stamina the product of a bustling childhood in which every youngster had a job to do.  

His unenviable task was to run the several miles to the grocer’s every day, collecting the bread that sustained his brothers and sisters back home. Every day he tried to run the distance more quickly, just so he could sit in front of the family’s black-and-white TV for the Ligue 1 highlights.    

Karembeu played barefoot in his village square after mass every Sunday. There, he learned the skills that would help him excel for his high-school team, before he joined capital outfit FC Naitcha as a breathless teen. He soon attracted the attention of former Caledonian international Marc Kanyan-Case, who recommended him to scouts from Ligue 1 side Nantes.  

Les Canaris were 72 hours and 20,000km away, but for Paul and Hudrenie, France offered an escape from the chaos engulfing the island. Aged just 17, their son departed his embittered homeland in search of a better life. At first, Karembeu struggled at La Jonelière. Most of his teammates couldn’t even place New Caledonia on the map. Inevitably, he began to feel isolated. “France was different to New Caledonia in every respect,” he recalled to Sarah Steiner for FIFA Weekly. “The weather, the people, the pace of life.”

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Thankfully, fellow Kanak and future Paris Saint-Germain manager Antoine Koumbouaré took Karembeu under his wing. For all the help he needed off the pitch, however, on it he was imperious. After just a handful of training sessions, coach Jean-Claude Suaudeau had seen enough to offer him a permanent contract.  

The name ‘Karembeu’ translates into ‘The Angry Man’ in the Kanala language. The name seemed apt for a bristling prodigy, Karembeu showing indefatigable presence across the backline and midfield, offering a stamina and strength unmatched by his counterparts. Inevitably, he signed his first professional contract in 1990, making his Nantes debut in a Coupe de France game against David Ginola’s Brest.  

It would be the following season when Karembeu made his talent truly known, however. After coach Miroslav Blažević was sacked, Suaudeau returned to a club stricken by financial problems. Unable to spend money on transfers, he turned to the club’s youth wing.  

Claude Makélélé joined Karembeu in midfield, while Reynald Pédros and Patrice Loko were exciting young talents up top. Two consecutive fifth-placed finishes augured well for an assault on the Ligue 1 title and, in 1995, Nicolas Ouédec and Loko scored nearly 50 goals between them to secure the championship by a 10-point margin. By now, the biggest clubs in Europe had awoken to Karembeu’s talents. As Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona circled, it was Sampdoria who made their move. 

The Genoese club have been treading water in recent times, but in the 1990s they were an unlikely high-flyer in the most glamorous league in the world. Much of their success can be attributed to the erudite coach Vujadin Boškov, who led i Blucheriati all the way to a gallant defeat in the 1992 Champions League final.  

Sven-Göran Eriksson had been appointed as Boškov’s successor, but the Swede had laboured under the Serb’s halcyon legacy. Life in Genoa got off to the worst possible start, with owner Enrico Mantovani selling star striker Gianluca Vialli to Juventus. With Eriksson struggling to inspire the club out of mid-table, Vladimir Jugović and David Platt departed the club. Mantovani, alarmed at the slide out of the title race, decided to splash the cash.  

If football was played on paper, Sampdoria may have been favorites for the title in 1996. As it happened, the signatures of Karembeu, Clarence Seedorf and Siniša Mihajlović couldn’t elevate the team beyond eighth place. Even with the goals of Roberto Mancini and Enrico Chiesa, it felt like the end of a cycle.  

Despite his team’s struggles, Karembeu had taken to Serie A with aplomb, becoming one of the league’s most accomplished players. “I had never seen anyone with a greater work capacity,” admitted Eriksson in his 2013 book Sven: My Story. “When he ran intervals in training, nobody could keep up.”

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As intimidated as they were by his athletic prowess, however, Karembeu ingratiated himself immediately, and not just because of his commensurate technical gifts. Respectful and learned, it was no surprise when his teammates donned t-shirts protesting the French government’s nuclear testing on New Caledonian territory in 1995. On and off the field, he became one of the team’s most important references.  

Sampdoria’s domestic troubles couldn’t be escaped, however. As his teammates laboured into his second season, Karembeu looked destined for bigger things. Real Madrid and Barcelona made their interest known, with the Spanish papers documenting the chase in agonising detail.  

Finally, Real Madrid announced his signature, with Karembeu arriving in the winter of 1997. Club president Lorenzo Sánz had been elected on a promise to deliver La Septima, Real’s coveted seventh Champions League, and had thrown everything towards the eternal goal. The previous summer, Karembeu’s former teammate Seedorf had arrived alongside Predrag Mijatović, Roberto Carlos and Davor Šuker.  

After a 32-year wait, Sánz and manager Jupp Heynckes would finally bring Los Merengues the title they craved. Real’s new number 22 had initially seemed fazed by his salubrious surroundings, admitting in a later interview that he “wasn’t sure what to do” in Real colours.  

Before long, however, he slotted in on the right of the Real midfield, his unflagging work rate and dedication proving the perfect accoutrement to Fernando Redondo’s elegant playmaking. By the time they lined up against Marcello Lippi’s Juventus on 20 May 1998, Real had already dispatched Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund on their way to the final. This, however, would be the toughest match of Karembeu’s career.

It was a tight affair, with Karembeu’s international teammates Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane setting the pace for the Italians. With neither side looking likely to concede, Roberto Carlos fired an optimistic volley into the box on 66 minutes. The ball broke loose with Mijatović reacting quickest, rounding Angelo Peruzzi before curling a left-footed wedge into the far corner. The trophy, after three decades, was returning to the Bernabéu. Karembeu, however, would be departing for the World Cup in France.  

“The last time that many people were on the Champs Elysées,” noted Youri Djorkaeff for the documentary Les Bleus!, “was after World War Two.” Djorkaeff was referring, of course, to France’s seismic victory that summer. Like any glorious triumph, however, it papered over some significant and discomfiting truths.  

“I see that players from other teams sing their national anthems whole-heartedly,” railed Front National politician Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1996, “while most players of the French team don’t sing or don’t seem to know the words. I find it a little artificial to recruit players from abroad and to call them ‘the French team’.”  

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Le Pen knew what he was doing. After a historic result in the French elections that had seen his party become a major player, he saw the national team as a lightning rod for the xenophobia and intolerance which comprised his bread and butter. That they had failed to impress at Euro 1996 only made the national team a more attractive scapegoat. Of all the national team’s supposed ‘foreigners’, none were more alien than Karembeu, and it was he alongside Zidane who attracted opprobrium from the French commentariat after the humbling semi-final exit against the Czech Republic. 

It wasn’t the only time that Karembeu’s relationship with France had been questioned. In 1998, novelist Didier Daeninckx published a book called Cannibale based on the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris. The event, which attracted thousands of visitors, was meant to be an exhibition of the glories France had accrued from her imperialist conquests. 

In reality, however, it was a shameful exposition of the racism and prejudice so encouraged by the colonialist regime, as groups of people conquered by the French were put on display to the watching masses. Spectators looked on as the ‘exhibits’ were forced to eat raw meat and perform savage dances for their amusement.  

In the course of his research for the book, Daeninckx came across a striking photograph. Placed behind bars in a human zoo were several Kanaks, one of whom bore a striking resemblance to Christian Karembeu. Daeninckx wrote to the player, asking if the figures in the picture meant anything to him. Several months later, he received a reply to say that the men in question were his great-grandfather Willy, and a number of his brothers. Some of the Kanaks in the picture would even be sold to a zoo in Weimar Germany, exchanged for a number of crocodiles.

Little wonder, then, why Karembeu chose not to sing La Marseillaise before international games. Here was a man who, despite his success at the highest level, chose to remain conscious of all parts of his identity – French and Kanak alike. Like his teammates, however, he could not accept the suggestion that his performances for France suffered from a lack of application, even writing a column in Le Monde to rebuff the claims. “My family, like many Kanak families, underwent horrible experiences,” Karembeu would later admit. “I can’t sing the French national anthem because I know the history of my people.”

In truth, Karembeu’s on-field contribution to the 1998 triumph was limited, at least at the beginning. When the tournament started he found himself on the bench, starting in the last game against Denmark when qualification from the group stage had already been assured. He would be unused again as the hosts squeezed past Paraguay, but he put in a solid hour against Italy in the quarter-final before being hauled off for Thierry Henry.

Karembeu’s best performance, however, arrived in the semi-final against Croatia. Starting on his favoured right side, he was given the task of shutting down the marauding Robert Jarni, performing manfully as Lilian Thuram’s double strangled the upstart Croats.  

The reward for his display was a starting berth for the final against Brazil. Alongside Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit, Karembeu hounded the Brazilians into submission. By the time he was withdrawn at half-time, the game had already been won. Almost a century after his ancestor had been degraded, he became the first Kanak to win the World Cup. The man from a tiny island in the Pacific had conquered the world.

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What is harder to recover from, success or failure? In the case of Real Madrid in 1998, it was unarguably the former. Guus Hiddink had had his own World Cup dream with the Netherlands, leading his country to the semi-final, and he joined Real Madrid that summer with a view to building on the previous year’s success. By February, however, he would be gone, falling foul of the Real board after a series of disagreements. Karembeu had returned from the World Cup injured, making just 20 appearances as Los Merengues failed on all fronts.  

The next year, Real completed the signing of Steve McManaman, and the Englishman brought real competition to Karembeu’s place on the right-hand side. By the time the Madrid club reached the Champions League final against Valencia in Paris, Karembeu was on the bench to see his replacement score his team’s second goal. His career, after such astronomic success, appeared to be at a crossroads.  

Noel Whelan may consider himself unlucky. It was in the summer of 2000 that the Englishman swapped Coventry for Middlesbrough, but his signing was completely overshadowed by the arrivals of Alen Bokšić and Christian Karembeu on Teeside. Karembeu had maintained a longstanding affinity for the Premier League, admiring the athletic style of play and the passion of the fans. Having conquered all of Europe’s top competitions, England and the ambitious Boro were the last frontier to be conquered.

The glamour, however, wouldn’t last. Struggling for form and fitness, Karembeu failed to inspire his teammates, who won just one of their first seven games. After just 12 months in the north-east, he departed for Olympiacos.  

Life at the Greek champions would be more in keeping with Karembeu’s talent. In Piraeus, he quickly became the team’s most important player, a dreadlocked flash of red and white able to dominate games with his talent and verve. His form was so dominant that he even earned a recall to the French team for a game against Scotland in March 2002. A dream return, however, would be ruined by the home supporters, who whistled derisorily at his inclusion. It would prove to be his last meaningful appearance for Les Bleus.

No matter; Karembeu continued to perform in Greece, and returned to the club as a strategic advisor upon his retirement after brief stints with Servette and Bastia. The relationship continues to this day, with Karembeu combining his club role with a number of charitable initiatives. He even found time to collaborate on a film about his beginnings as a footballer in New Caledonia. Unsurprisingly, Kanak: The Forgotten History won several awards.  

This story, however, couldn’t finish anywhere except the football pitch. In May 2008, Karembeu joined his World Cup-winning teammates at the Numa Daly stadium in Noumea for a celebration of his contribution to French and New Caledonian football. Fabien Barthez, Bixente Lizarazu and Zinedine Zidane all lined up against a local team, whilst Karembeu’s family watched on from the stands.  

“This is a wonderful opportunity to give something back to the people of Oceania,” he said. But the capacity crowd already knew what he’d given them: a World Cup winners medal, a Champions League trophy and, most importantly, a place on the map.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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