How cracks appeared in the joyous French unity of 1998

It is 20 years since the night France won their World Cup at the Stade de France and a powerful myth was born on the streets of Paris.

The team representing the famous blue, white and red tricolour flag was also multi-hued.

The shirts were "Bleu, Blanc, Rouge," and the squad that had united to beat Brazil, 3-0, with two goals from Zinedine Zidane, was "Black, Blanc, Beur," or black, white and French of North African descent.

There had been dissenting voices from far-right politicians, yet France fell in love with the icon, Zidane, who was of Algerian Kabyle descent and players born, or with roots, in the Caribbean, Senegal, Ghana, New Caledonia, Portugal, Spain, Armenia, Argentina, as well as France.

That night, on the Champs-Elysees an enormous crowd embraced the myth of a cohesive, harmonious, multi-ethnic France.

It was a myth that soon began to crack.

Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram, France's most capped player and the scorer of two goals in the 1998 semi-final, told AFP in 2008: "The celebration of the 'France Black-Blanc-Beur' was a slogan."

Thuram has frequently, and coherently, spoken out on race and football and that has made him a lightning rod in debates on the topic.

In a recent interview he said: "It's extremely stupid to say there's a French identity," because "every one of us carries a unique identity."

Tensions over that identity emerged among the swashbuckling players themselves.

These exploded in 2011 after French investigative website Mediapart exposed a discussion on race quotas in France's age-group teams.

According to the Mediapart, those at the top of French football believed there were "too many blacks and too many Arabs and not enough whites."

- Political storm -

Laurent Blanc, who was national coach at the time, part of the defensive backbone of the 1998 squad, had, it was reported, signed off on a quotas plan proposed by others in the French Football Federation.

"It seems that we keep producing the same type of player: big, strong, powerful," Blanc reportedly said at a meeting in 2010. "Who is big, strong, powerful? The blacks."

"The Spaniards, they told me: 'We do not have any problem. We don't have any blacks'."

In the political storm that followed, Blanc apologised and was cleared of any wrongdoing by Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno and a federation inquiry.

But the affair tore the 1998 squad apart.

The majority supported Blanc, known as "The President" in his playing days, including his Ghanaian-born centre-back partner Marcel Desailly and Zidane, who told L'Equipe that Blanc "had to stay" as national coach and that "he certainly isn?t racist."

Others were less forgiving.

Senegal-born Patrick Vieira, who came on as a substitute in the 1998 final, said: "It's scandalous! These are serious remarks."

Thuram weighed in on French TV, saying Blanc's apology "did not live up to the severity of the proposal".Thuram told another TV channel that despite the remarks, "I do not think he's racist."

The bespectacled Thuram, like Desailly and Blanc, a big, strong and powerful player with a reputation for brains, is the man French media turn to for quotes on race and that evidently annoys some former team-mates.

Patrice Evra, leader of a player rebellion at the 2010 World Cup that spooked the French federation, resented being lectured by Thuram, saying: "Just because you walk around with books about slavery, glasses and a hat that doesn't make you Malcom X."

During the Blanc scandal, Christophe Dugarry, who came off the bench for the last 24 minutes of the 1998 final, accused Thuram of "passing for a Supreme Court judge" and, for the first time, described a scene from the day of the 1998 final.

"I heard Lilian Thuram, and I'm not the only one, Frank Leboeuf also did, say 'come on the Blacks, we're doing a photo together'," Dugarry recalled.

Thuram told AFP that he did not recall the incident and despite the differences, says he remains attached to his 1998 team-mates and what they achieved together, including Dugarry.

"Christophe Dugarry is someone I really like. We can love each other, appreciate each other, and disagree. When someone criticises me, it does not mean that he does not love me," he said.

He might believe that the idea of a French identity is naive, but, he says, "what feeds me, when sometimes it's complicated, is this victory, taking the bus, going to the Champs-Elysees and seeing France."

Looking back over 20 years at the legacy of that triumph, Christian Karembeu, the New Caledonian who started in midfield, told AFP: "It is France with diversity, with different ethnicities and different religions. Voilà la France! It's multicultural and one has to accept that as well. Football is a catalyst for uniting a people."