Who is Eric Cantona?" My wife, who is a French teacher, asked the question some years ago when the enigmatic and decidedly moody French footballer first came to England. He had signed for Leeds United and in Leeds schools the sudden interest in France and all things French was remarkable.
"Miss, how do you write 'Cantona is God' in French?"
But Monsieur Cantona uttered few words, he had a translator to help him and he has disappeared, like a trawler into the mist, back to France.
Now there is Frank Leboeuf of Chelsea. Like Cantona he is from the south of France but the difference between the two men could prove a blessing for language teachers struggling with less than eager pupils. For Leboeuf is determined to improve his already respectable English. When a word is beyond him he turns for help, the word is explained and is absorbed into his vocabulary.
He has embraced l'ambience anglaise, he lives in Kensington and he has popped into many nearby secondary schools to talk to students. It is the almost forgotten virtue of the fortunate wanting to give something back.
Frank is now the focus of a video produced by CILT (the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research) and the French Embassy. Titled On est fou du Foot, avec Frank Leboeuf , it is aimed at GCSE students and part of it was filmed at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea ground. Eight youngsters from Cheam High School were invited along to ask questions and kick footballs on the hallowed turf.
Emma Kendall, 14-years-old and not a football fan, was clearly impressed by Leboeuf. He has the poise and rhythm of a natural athlete and the inner calm of someone who is at ease with fame. He speaks French with clarity and intellectual eagerness and hardly a trace of his southern roots. When he speaks there is direct eye contact and engaging humour. He would be just as effective if he were a top surgeon or even the head of a multi-national company.
"He's very down to earth," chirped Emma. "Puts you completely at ease. He plays golf, drives a Porsche, likes the pop group Everything But the Girl - and he likes puddings. He's not at all like English footballers. Being able to speak a language gives you freedom to work in other countries, it's something I would like to do."
The youngsters went back to school with heads buzzing, inspired by Leboeuf's ability to communicate and impressed with the intellectual and social strength that a second language can bring.
Frank came to England because he was fascinated by the passion and fervour of English football and he wanted to learn English. When not filming he insisted on speaking English simply because - "I am in England, it is expected."
"If you want to go forward when you are an adult," he explained, "you have to speak two languages or maybe more. There are no frontiers now, you have to open your mind. I had eight years of English at school but when I arrived in England I had to start from the beginning. Not with books, no. I speak English every day, I watch TV and I have an English teacher here in Kensington. I did not want to speak about some poet or writer - I wanted to speak about life. I needed the words and phrases I would meet in my job."
The video is blessed with natural conversation. Controlled spontaneity was the aim from the outset. Questions were prepared but conversations were improvised on camera after a brief outline. There are scenes of Leboeuf with his wife and small children, shots of a home match and training and scenes in Saint-Cy-Sur-Mer, the village in Provence where Frank grew up.
Frank's greatest challenge has yet to come. Barring injury or a sudden dip in form he will be playing for his country in the World Cup finals in France this summer, a tournament which might also provide a topical focus for French lessons this year. With this in mind, the Delegation Culturelle Francaise has put together its own World Cup competition, Allons en France 98 for A-level students - though it need not be restricted to A-level football fanatics.
Entrants have to write a journal recording an imagined stay in one of the towns hosting the France 98 matches; impressions of the region, its culture and cuisine are suggested in the guidelines. A short, taped "local radio" interview, with the reporter played by a teacher, is also required.
Prizes? Eleven winners - no substitutes allowed - will be taken on an extended visit to see some of the France 98 matches, where they can see Frank Leboeuf express himself in the best way he knows: on the pitch.
The Allons en France 98 competition closes on February 20. Allons en France 98, 23 Cromwell Road, London SW7 2EL, or Bridgewater House, 58 Whitworth Street, Manchester M1 6LS or Web site http:www.campus. bt. com Campus Worldpub France ALC. The video is available in March, #163;12, from CILT, 20 Bedfordbury, Covent Garden, London WC2N 4LD tel: 0171 379 5110