Monthly Archives: March 2011

The End

I’ve been a good fan: sticking with the French through the decade since 1998, through ups and downs and waves of absurdity. I managed to get through the experience and the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, though it did take writing an entire book about the history of French soccer to do so. I hobbled through the Shakespearean tragedy of 2008 European Cup, watching my hero Thuram outrun and outfoxed in one game, then exiled to the bench for his final match for France. I even smiled my way through the farce of 2010, with locker-room rants turned into issues of national security — partly because being in South Africa for the World Cup was quite enough joy for a lifetime. This fall, I briefly felt a foolish serenity, thinking that things must be getting better, that the team was being rebuilt, and have even started taking absurd satisfaction in victories over Luxembourg and contemplating going to Ukraine in 2012.

But what I saw this past Friday — the unveiling of the new French jersey — has catapulted me into the depths of despair.

I actually thought, at first, it must be some kind of post-modern joke: a performance art piece done, with the collusion of the French football federation, by a super-hip Parisian artist who has decided to transform the theater of football into a theater of fashion parody. I imagined the artist, interviewed on some incredibly tedious French talk show, describing how he was attempting to deconstruct the ways in which “Frenchness” has traditionally been figured by transforming the space of masculine sports culture into a zone of humorous inversion.

What else, after all, could truly explain this jersey?

But no, it’s not a joke. It’s actually a carefully crafted Nike product, unveiled specially for the France-Croatia friendly played last week at the Stade de France. (Just as this hilarious 1974 football fashion display was also, remarkably, dead serious.) I was all geared up for the game: figuring it would bring back memories of the 1998 Semi-Final when, in the same stadium, Thuram scored two goals — the only two ever in his career for France — to secure the country a place in the Final. Even though the game wasn’t particularly great, I still would likely have enjoyed it — if it weren’t for those jerseys. But instead I just sat there, dumbfounded.

The poor players were forced to saunter onto the field actually wearing these things, and play a game without dissolving into laughter or tears. Are they really paid enough to have to do that?

Even worse, Rami ended up hurting himself — writhing on the ground, with a serious shoulder injury. In that jersey.

I miss the nice dark blue. I even miss those simple white jerseys Zidane headbutted Materazzi in. I miss my innocent youth of chanting “Allez les Bleus” and it having some logic. During the last year, it’s seemed increasingly clear the world is ending: natural disasters, political disasters, bizarre climate change, silly bandz, one thing after another. But there was still this little pure space left: the spectacle of my team, playing and even winning sometimes, of skilled players from a rich range of backgrounds coming together for a common goal. Now that, too, is gone. Never again, at least as long as they wear those jerseys, will I be able to watch a game without sobbing.

There are, I know, plenty of other options. I can start rooting for Algeria — they have nice green uniforms with flourescent green socks, and are pretty much all French these days anyway. I can root for Brazil in 2014: who (other than Argentines, that is) doesn’t feel cool in the bright yellow of the Esperanto of football jerseys? I’ve always liked Brazil, the national team of Haiti. And, without even leaving home, I can root for Guadeloupe, the underdog in that underdog of global football championships, the CONCACAF Gold Cup. They’re French too, after all, and nicely decked out in red and green. Or the U.S, with it’s nice jerseys and a new slogan and symbol purified of reactionary resonances.

But perhaps the only sensible thing is to take a break from international football altogether, and watch my French players at in Chelsea Blue or Arsenal Yellow. I’m not sure about Russia 2016, and a little freaked about about the heat, and the fake cloud machines, promised for Qatar 2022. I know Zidane thinks it will be great, but the whole event threatens to be a bit too FIFA-Disney for my tastes.

Hopefully, by the time of the 2026 World Cup in Fiji or Sri Lanka, France will have gotten rid of their ridiculous little sailor boy jerseys, and I’ll be ready to come home again.

The Return of Evra and Ribéry

In the quaint Luxembourg stadium on Friday, in front of a hopeful banner that read “Lux 4, Fra 0,” the pitch welcomed Patrice Evra and Franck Ribéry back from their period of post-World Cup exile. The game itself was, to put it politely, not the most thrilling of match-ups — France is lucky to be in European Cup qualifying group with some of Europe’s cutest nations, Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands — but the mild victory by France further solidified it’s march towards the 2012 European Cup, and more importantly registered as the end of one thing and, hopefully, the beginning of another.

The events that took place 9 months ago, when the French team played badly and went on strike against it’s coach seem far away now, for the French team under Laurent Blanc is now thriving, at ease on the pitch, a mix of well-established and newer players. Evra and Ribéry, in the tradition of Zidane’s post-headbutt statements, at once apologized and didn’t quite, admitting they had made mistakes but also criticizing (rightly, I think), the way the press approached the entire debacle. Ribéry’s statement was intense and frank, insisting that the press had hurt many people, personally, through it’s treatment of the players. He had a tough 2010, for sure: a convert to Islam, married to an Algerian woman, he was caught up in a prostitution scandal even before the World Cup debacle. But I thought he spoke with dignity, and it’s exciting to think that this player — who at times (particularly during the 2006 World Cup), has truly lit up the pitch in his playing for France.

Evra’s return took place after a one-on-one conversation with Blanc, during which I dearly wish I could have been a fly on the wall. Evra explained that the two had a good discussion, and added that Blanc had said things that “would remain between us.” (Evra seems to have learned something of diplomatic skills from his father, a Guinean diplomat). What I think and hope that means is that Blanc probably admitted that he understood some of what Evra did, and promised (as he has clearly demonstrated) that his reign represents a break with the oddball approach of Domenech. It’s the right move, but in fact a courageous one, for there are still those who are furious with Evra and continue to hammer away at the idea that the players were selfish, overpaid, and too rebellious and deserve permanent exile from the French team. A poll taken before the game apparently registered 70% of French people opposing the return of the two players. Blanc is more forgiving, and his approach seems to be quietly pragmatic: it would indeed be foolish for a national team to pass up the service of the likes of Evra, who continues to show himself essential and effective at Manchester United this season. Perhaps, too, he actually understands that what happened in South Africa was a systemic failure rather than the fault of a few players.

This return inevitably brings up the question of whether Nicholas Anelka, whose insults against the French manager were at the center of the whole World Cup fiasco, could return. In November Laurent Blanc announced he had no objections to such a return. It’s not clear whether Anelka would want to come back, but if he wants to play on the international stage again, his only choice will be France. (Anelka’s parents are from Martinique). Maybe a head-to-head conversation between Blanc and Anelka would do the trick, as it did with Evra?

Other French-born players, of course, have of late made clear that they have no intention or interest in playing for the French team, most stridently Tottenham Hotspur player Benoit Assou-Ekotto, who has played for Cameroon — where his parents are from — and explained that he had no feeling at all for the French team. Such choices — facilitated by the new FIFA rules which, at the urging of the Algerian Football Federation, made it possible for players to switch from playing for one national team to another once during their career — will impact and reshape French and African football in the coming years.

Yet Blanc’s approach also suggests that the French team, for all it’s struggles in the previous years, will also remain — at least potentially — a site through which an alternative vision of France will be articulated, as it long has been. One can’t help thinking that Sarkozy could — and most certainly won’t — take a cue from Blanc, whose time as manager marks a refreshing shift from the madness and corruption of the previous years. But, for now at least, the football pitch seems like it will remain a relatively isolated site of sanity in the midst of a distressing and at times mystifying social and political impasse.  Still, better to find solace in football than nowhere at all.