Monthly Archives: April 2011

Racist Delirium: A Close Reading

The coming week will presumably bring more twists and turns in the now explosive question of racism in the midst of the French Football Federation. Already, as Libération reported this morning, one high-ranking member of the Federation specifically named in the Mediapart article that broke has been suspended, and an internal investigation launched. I posted a summary of the situation and some initial reactions here on Thursday evening, and at the invitation of Mediapart (the blog that broke the story), wrote a longer reaction in French on Friday.

Here, I want to spend a bit more time analyzing precisely how the curious racist logic described in the article actually works. Doing so can help us understand better the broader functioning of contemporary French racism, both in terms of it’s forms of articulations and it’s deep roots in a long tradition of colonial representations as well as stereotypes within the field of sport itself.

The discussions at the FFF apparently were triggered by the anger on the part of some members — including Laurent Blanc — at the fact that some French-born players who have received training in government-funded academies have chosen to play for other national teams. The 2010 World Cup had brought this issue home in a particularly powerful way, because as a result of some recent changes in FIFA policy as well as in a change in direction within the Algerian Football Federation, the Algerian national team was made up of a majority of French-born players. As children of Algerian immigrants, they could claim double-nationality, and therefore take advantage of the possibility of playing on football largest stage. Not only was the Algerian team packed with French-born players, but it is also effectively a home team in much of France: when Algeria and France both qualified for the 2010 World Cup in the fall of 2009, there were massive celebrations in Marseille, and others in Paris — for the Algerian team. Partly because of the way the French qualification happened — through Thierry Henry’s notorious handball — few actually celebrated it. And in South Africa, of course, while neither France nor Algeria made it out of the group stage, it was the latter team that probably made a better — and certainly more dignified — showing.

The question of where French-born players who can claim double-nationality play has a long history. It is, in fact, haunted by a very powerful historical experience: in 1958, a number of professional players of Algerian background in France left the country in order to form a national team for their own country, which was fighting for independence. Two of those players, including the legendary Rachid Mekloufi, had been tapped to play for France in the 1958 World Cup. (I tell the story of this episode, and the broader role of football in the Algerian revolution, in my book Soccer Empire). In the next decades, the Algerian federation sometimes recruited players raised in France, but they were always a minority. When Zidane was growing up in the 1980s and was invited to play for a French youth team, he accepted, later describing the decision as completely natural, since had grown up on the country. He was, at times, criticized for the decision. But most players of his generation who were invited to play for France, even when they did have other options, chose to play with the team.

That has, in fact, largely remained true. Professionally, it usually remains a better bet to play for a European team than an African one, for it provides more international exposure. To my knowledge, none of the French-born players who played for Algeria had not actually turned down an invitation to play for the main French national team in order to do so. Many, however, had played on various youth teams at one time or another, as any particularly talented footballer in France is likely to do. What has changed recently, however, is that FIFA now allows more flexibility to players: even if they have played for a French youth team, they can opt to switch and play for another country. Before, players were effectively trapped — the decisions they made as adolescents were binding. Now that is no longer true. Which means that players can test the waters, try for the French national squad, but also continue to explore the option of playing for another national team such as Algeria.

All of this is — or should be — banal enough. There are lots of people, and football players, in the world with double-nationality, with complex and crossing allegiances. David Trezeguet, for instance, a French citizen of Argentinian background, could have played for either nation. Spain naturalized Brazilian Marcos Senna specifically so he could play on the national team. Some U.S. players also face the same issues. What is particularly striking, and alarming, about the way this has been cast in France is that it is articulated as a kind of shocking treason on the part of players.

Let’s go back to what, according to Mediapart, individuals at the FFF said about this question. Doing so is of course problematic at this point: Blanc has issued a blanket denial, saying that all of the allegations are false, but the discussion was reported to the blog by someone who participated in them. So we’ll need to wait to see if we can get more clarity about whose word is more believable in this case. For now, however, I’m going to analyze the conversation as Mediapart reported it. (A good summary of the most important quotes is presented in today’s Liberation article).

When the question of players of double-nationality came up, Blanc apparently said:

“What’s happening today in football bothers me a lot. In my opinion, we have to eradicate it. And there is no connotation of racism at all in what I’m saying. When people wear the jersey of the national team at 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, in Espoirs, and then after that they go play in North African or African teams, that bothers me a great deal. That we have to limit.”

Another member of the FFF then apparently suggested setting a policy of having no more than 30 percent of the players in a particular set of national academies (those most directly run by the FFF rather than professional teams) who were “able to change nationality.” In response, Francois Blacquart — the Director of Technical Education — said that actually he wanted to go further.

“The idea is to say — but not officially — in any case we’re not taking as many kids who might change (i.e. their nationality) in the future. We can mark out, without saying it, a kind of quota. But it can’t be said.”

You can see why Blacquart was the first to fall: he seems to have both insisted on a quota and on the idea that it should be hidden, carried out effectively in secret. And he had the power to put such a policy into place, since he oversees the academies in question.

There’s a lot going on here, of course. First of all, how are trainers recruiting kids who are 12 or 13 supposed to know how might be likely to “change” nationality in the future? (That formulation itself is telling, since in fact such players don’t change nationality, they usually simply apply for double-nationality, based on the background of their parents, while remaining French). One doubts that they would carry out extensive interviews with parents and children about their future citizenship plans. In practice, you can see what this would really mean: those who, because of the color of their skin, their religion, their names, strike French coaches as potentially foreign, would be subject to discriminatory treatment. There would be an additional barrier to their entry into an academy or their promotion: they might be good, but wouldn’t a “white” French players who will have no choice but to stick with one national team better?

Here is how conversations that I’m sure seemed logical — even honest and lucid and responsible — skid into the realm of racist fantasy. If the next Nicholas Anelka or Thierry Henry or Lilian Thuram or William Gallas — all of them of French Caribbean background (i.e. from the French departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique, or French Guiana), therefore French citizens with no option but to play for the national team — was trying to get access to a football academy under these proposed conditions, would their particular family history save them? Or would the color of their skin condemn them? As importantly, though, in what universe can one imagine it as just and ethical that a coach employed by the French government to work in an academy should get to divine what a twelve-year-old kid might someday do, and make decisions about their qualification based on such an attempt to look into the future? What this all comes down to is that, effectively, a large group of young players who — in many cases precisely because of conditions of racial exclusion and discrimination — are trying to get access to professional football would be deemed potentially disloyal, in advance, and therefore refused one of the few opportunities they might otherwise be granted.

There is also a kind of strange folly here, too, because access to academies is presented as a huge privilege. No doubt a small number of youths who go through these academies are able, in part thanks to their training there, to embark on careers as successful footballers. But the vast majority never do. If they don’t do well enough they are quietly dropped. In the meantime, they have usually moved away from their families — often at a tremendously young age — and placed all their hopes in the “Espoir” of professional football. It is a tremendous risk, and it takes young people away from other pursuits. It is all to the advantage of the French Federation, which gets to cultivate and select players out of a large pool. But it is no picnic for the young players. And that some of them, at some point, decide that their best route to a profession in football is to play for Algeria or Senegal in an international competition seems totally reasonable.

This is not the worst of it, however. For having been treated as potential traitors in the discussion at the FFF, players — notably black players — were then accused of being at the root of the problems of French football in general. Here is where another step in the delirium took place. Laurent Blanc complained that the academies in France were all educating just one kind of player: “big, strong, powerful.” “And today, who do we have who are big, strong, and powerful? The blacks. It’s that way. It’s a fact. And god knows . . . there are lots of them.” For Blanc, what was needed was a “recentering,” that would follow “other criteria, with our own culture.” What, precisely, did he mean? He explained by inference. “I’ll cite the example of the Spanish: they don’t have this problem. . . . The Spanish have told me: We don’t have a problem. We don’t have any blacks.”

What is going on here, with a bit of obfuscation but little subtletly, is an age-old racist assertion: that black athletes are “strong” and “big” but are not tactically intelligent, while white players bring intelligence to the game. In the U.S., these stereotypes circulate most clearly in debates about black quarterbacks (as well of course of coaches) in football. The members of the FFF comfortably seem to have made an extravagant and mystifying jump, unhinged not only from the most basic of human ethics but also from any actual observation of the history or present of French football. But racism, especially when it has been naturalized and spread around freely as it increasingly has been in official circles in France during the past years, has a way of becoming “common sense,” bulldozing and reshaping reality in order to fit it’s assumptions.

In the hallowed halls of the FFF, then, a group of powerful white men had determined that French football had to be saved from a group of potentially treasonous young men. If their projected disloyalty wasn’t bad enough, they also — these men argued — were holding France back. They might be “big, strong and powerful” but didn’t understand the game, and needed to be pushed aside to make room for players who could follow “our culture” on the field.

This is at once fascinating and nauseating is because it so well condenses the broader operations of racist through in contemporary France. What is striking, though, is how much blindness and forgetting has to go on to make any of these assertions possible. That men who have devoted their lives to football were able to do such violence to the principles of the sport is a testament to how powerful the distortions of racist thought are. The danger, of course, is that this thought presents it’s practitioners with so many routes of escape, some of which I’m sure we will see being used in the coming week. After all, like many people about to emit racist statements, Blanc apparently began his comments by pointing out that there was “nothing racist” about them — perhaps a sign that, somewhere, he knew that precisely the opposite was true.

Racist Delirium at the French Football Federation

This afternoon the French blog Mediapart published a stunning report, based on several weeks of investigation, that argues that racist ideas have become normalized, indeed banalized, at the highest levels of the French Football Federation. You can read an English version of the report here. And I have published a piece in reaction the article at Mediapart, which echoes and extends some of the reflections here.

Mediapart reports that, at the end of 2010, several high-ranking members of the F.F.F. — including the current French national team coach, Laurent Blanc, a veteran of the 1998 World Cup campaign — agreed that it was desirable to decrease the numbers of “black” and “Arab” players in the national training academies. They sent out directives to various academies asking them to intervene — among trainees at the age of 12-13 — to effectively limit the number of players of these backgrounds. While many in France on the left and right have for years declaimed and feared the idea that “quotas” would be put in place in order to carry out what is tellingly called “positive discrimination” (i.e. affirmative action) to help diversify universities and other institutions, it seems the F.F.F. was quite literally discussing, and even starting to put into effect, a “quota” system aimed at making sure there was what they considered the appropriate number of “white” players, who seemed to have been deemed by some generally more tactically intelligent.

Since I read this piece this afternoon, I’ve been stunned by the skid into delirium this represents. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: after all, racist commentary about the French team has a long history, and reached a dangerous peak during the 2010 World Cup fiasco. (In late June of last year, for instance, a small crowd of protestors entered the F.F.F. headquarters, demanding that it create a team that was “white and Christian” by “firing” “blacks and Arabs“). And yet this is nothing short of a powerful form of treason — not only to the principles of equality that supposedly under-gird French political life, but to the principles of sport as well. That many young men who grow up in the French banlieue (suburbs), subject to economic marginalization and various forms of racial and cultural exclusion, have sought to use sport out of an otherwise highly constrained situation is of course logical enough. After all, it is at least ideally one place where social background and connections shouldn’t really matter: if you play well on the field, if you score goals, no one can claim you didn’t. The French state, meanwhile, has at times strongly supported sports programs in banlieue regions as a way of addressing social issues. And some recruiters for academies explicitly looked to such neighborhoods as they searched for talented young players.

In the last decades, France has produced a string of legendary players: Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira, Patrice Evra, Florent Malouda, Lassana Diarra, Nicholas Anelka, Samir Nasri, and Karim Benzema — just to name the ones who have played at the pinnacle of the European professional game in England, Italy and Spain. All of these are French citizens, most born in France (though some arrived as young boys in the country with their parents), and have roots in the Caribbean or Africa (including North Africa). Their tactical and technical brilliance is widely recognized and cherished by a series of professional coaches. Many of these players contributed in crucial ways in winning France its only World Cup victory in 1998 — Thuram and Zidane respectively won the semi-final and final for France in that year. They led the team to a European Cup victory in 2000, and again to the final of the World Cup in 2006.

So it is both nauseating and, frankly, just insane that the French Football Federation — rather than acknowledging and confronting it’s own sclerotic institutional culture, which has prevented any significant diversification of its administrative ranks — is now actually blaming “blacks” and “Arabs” for causing problems for French football. They have skidded into the realm of dangerous fantasy, deeply demeaning themselves and the sport they are supposed to represent.

The news has spread quickly, and the official denials are — unsurprisingly — coming in as well. Laurent Blanc called Mediapart to deny that he ever made the comments attributed to him in the article. Other officials explain that the issue is that the F.F.F. has been frustrated by the number of players who, holding double nationality, have been trained in French academies but then played for teams outside France. (The Algerian team in 2010 included many such players). But the site insists its documentation on the topic is solid. They promise to publish more in the coming days, and one key question is what their sources are.  The next days will surely bring us more accusations and counter-accusations; this is already ugly, and will likely get more so. There is no way to know for sure, right now, whether the accusations leveled in the article will all stand.

My hunch, however, is that while the details and specifics will and should be debated, the broad indictment leveled in the article is probably correct. For years various powerful actors — including President Sarkozy — have contributed to the banalization and normalization of racist discourse, succeeding in making absurd and violent sentiments and statements acceptable, even a little chic. The fact that this has become true at the F.F.F. is, however, devastating precisely because, for so long, football actually was one of the rare sites that offered up a broad and popular alternative vision of what France could be — by showing what France actually is. While it is certainly likely that some of these discussions were driven by the issue of players of double-nationality, that would simply make this another site within French life where issues of immigration and naturalization are transformed — carelessly and with little attention to the reality on the ground — into excuses for racism. The large number of prominent players of Caribbean background, for instance, are not in a situation where they could claim double nationality and therefore play for another team.

In a recent book, Achille Mbembe has argued that France today is struggling because — unlike its former colonies — it never actually went through its own process of decolonization. Today’s news makes that abundantly clear. Perhaps the exposure will force a real confrontation with the institutions that have allowed themselves to rot from within, and a call for true change. But that may be too much to hope for.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

It’s one of funnest and most satisfying sports within the sport of football: complaining about the tedious, predictable, if not nauseating commentary foisted on us by the networks. With barely disguised pleasure, we chat or tweet our criticisms of the uninvited guests who join our football watching party. We wonder: Have these guys ever watched a soccer game? Where do they come up with the stream of absurd statistics? Who is the person next to them finding the most obscure pieces of information to pepper the commentary with? (“The last time a man with a Polish name scored a goal against a goalie from Egypt, it was 1922. The match was ended prematurely when a flock of chickens entered the field.”)

There are obviously exceptions, with some people and some matches better than others. But sometimes, I can’t believe that I’m watching the most interesting thing on earth while listening to what might be the most boring people on earth. I know it’s not entirely their fault: there are limits to what can be said, borders around what constitutes acceptably neutral sports discourse. But it largely excludes a flood of potentially interesting stuff to comment on during a match: commentary on hairstyles, rants and screeds about the referees, commentary on weird fan behavior, skewering of FIFA or some other guilty institution, polemical discussion of club, national or international politics. Maybe we have friends that we like to watch matches with who can give us this, but we can’t always watch with them in our scattered alienated late capitalist existence.

Do we really have to stay in this prison? That, my friend, is what I have been wondering ever since, during the U.S.-Argentina friendly match a few weeks back, the always astute and thought-provoking Jennifer Doyle tweeted an explosive suggestion: “We need pirate match broadcasting.”

She set me a-dreamin’.

The technology is all in place: many of us watch matches online anyway, and it’s easy enough to set up a streaming audio link on a blog or webpage. So here is what we’ll do: we turn on the network, gleefully press “mute,” and tune into one of our friends — Jennifer Doyle for international women’s football, Grant Wahl on the MLS, Liz Hottel for the pained philosophizing that is the only way to survive Arsenal matches. Once the door is opened, who knows who we will discover? It will be a free-wheeling wild west, with a cacophony of voices narrating the twists and turns of the most fascinating theater on earth. There will be no limits, nothing off-limits: they can curse, make fun of people, be mean, go on crazy tangents. If they need to call up meaningless statistics, google and wikipedia will provide as much — if not more — than what they scare up on TV. Any language, multiple languages — singing, chanting, gurgling, shouting with glee or despair.

It will be the beginning of a beautiful, revolutionary world. A football spring of sorts, a technology driven freeing of the mind from the containment of commentary as we know it.

The time has come. Are we ready?