Author Archives: Laurent Dubois

About Laurent Dubois

I am Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University. A specialist on the history and culture of France and the Caribbean, notably Haiti, I am the author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France. I founded the Soccer Politics blog in the Fall of 2009 as part of a Duke University course called "World Cup and World Politics," whose students helped me develop the site.

Football and Accusation

Last Tuesday Haiti’s Under-17 National Football team was sent home from Jamaica after two players and a coach were diagnosed with malaria. The decision was presented as a public health measure — the Jamaican public health ministry described the sickness as “imported” — and resulted in an effective forfeit for the team from the CONCACAF competition. There are still many questions about the decision, for it seems a little unlikely — given the relatively regular movement between Haiti and Jamaica of travelers, including aid workers — that the presence of the footballers really represented a public health menace. And it has incited strong and impassioned response among some Haitians, who have decried the fact that the young player’s crucial moment of competition was taken away from them as a result of the diagnosis.

Today, Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald reporting on a protest march to the CARICOM building in protest of the decision, including young players and supporters wearing team jerseys. A few thousand people attended the march. Protestors attacked the decision as discriminatory, and some have called for a boycott on Jamaican products — and even on reggae music on the radio.

(You can read her full story at the Miami Herald here)

Although Haiti’s national teams have had difficulty in international competitions during the past decades, their is tremendous pride in the players and coaches who go overseas for such competitions. Last Fall, Laura Wagner described her discussions with members of Haiti’s under-17 women’s team, who suffered a humiliating loss at the hands of the U.S. — after having lost players and coaches in the earthquake — but remain committed to training and competing overseas. The international appearances of Haiti’s football teams are a rare chance for the country to represent itself overseas in a way that challenges stereotypes, and places them — at least in principle — on an equal footing with other richer and more powerful nations. So the incident in Jamaica is hurtful, particularly because it was directed at young players who have overcome tremendous odds to be on the team and compete internationally. And for many Haitians it obviously calls up many other previous cases in which they were discriminated against overseas based on accusations that they were carrying disease to other countries. (The most of famous of these, of course, was the period in the 1980s when Haitians were accused of bring AIDS to the United States, analyzed in Paul Farmer’s book AIDS and Accusation). Especially given that the country is suffering under the burdens of a cholera outbreak — it has afflicted at least 200,000, and left many thousands dead — that was most likely brought to the country from outside, this accusation about the danger of the spread of malaria hits particularly hard.

Jamaican and CONCACAF authorities presumably didn’t imagine their decision would ignite such controversy. But, given the history of discrimination against Haitians — and the intense passion with which many fans follow the sport — they easily could have predicted that they would be pricking the pride of Haitians and approached the whole matter more carefully and diplomatically. It’s hard to say whether today’s protests will continue or peter out. But part of the ethic of international competition must be respect for the dignity of the countries and players who participate in them. In this case, it wouldn’t have taken too much to understand that the actions would be taken by some as a deep insult, and a significant theft of hope, in a context where hope is in short supply.

Zidane Goes Home for Qatar

I found this video, produced by the Qatar bid, to be a fascinatingly constructed piece of work, transforming Zidane’s biography into an endorsement of the need for a Middle Eastern World Cup. In it, Zidane returns to his childhood home and talks about his career, and repeatedly refers to the difficulties he faced because of  “his origins” as a child of Algerian immigrants. The video was, according to those whose opinion truly counts — bookies — enough to push Qatar’s bid over the top. Zidane, meanwhile, apparently netted 1.9 million pounds, or about $3 million dollars, for his role as ambassador for the Qatar bid. Once a symbol of a now seriously tattered vision of the emergence of a tolerant multi-cultural France, Zidane is transformed here into a spokesman for the “youth of the Middle East,” of their hopes, and of their need for “an event like the World Cup” to show them what possibilities lay ahead. “Football belongs to everyone,” declares Zidane at the end of the video. And now 2022 belongs to Qatar.

Elsewhere

Well, the votes are in, the decision is made, and all the blandishments of Clinton and Morgan Freeman have failed: we won’t be having a World Cup here any time soon. I’ll try and get over my initial disappointment: I’ve lately been having bucolic daydreams about a nice summer 2022 (yes, we actually do plan that long ahead when it has to do with the World Cup) spent zipping around the U.S. by car taking in games. Instead, I’ll presumably need to get used to some very high temperatures in Qatar. For the admittedly relatively small population of people here in the U.S. who were aware that this announcement was being made today, the outcome might have come as a bit of a surprise, especially when coupled with the defeat of both the English and the Spain/Portugal Bids for the 2018 World Cup, which went to Russia. Grant Wahl has already written a short, and strong reaction in which he argues: “Choosing Qatar and Russia is the biggest indictment possible that FIFA is not a clean organization. The message here is that petrodollars talk.”

Even if I’d like to pretend that the main reason Qatar got the bid was that Zidane supported it, there’s no getting around the rather ugly spectacle that has attended the lobbying around these decisions. At the same time, of course, it’s hard not to seem parochial when one gets upset that Qatar got the bid. After all, a World Cup in the Middle East seems like just the thing for a supposedly cosmopolitan, global institution like FIFA. As Supriya Nair tweeted, summing up the conundrum here: “yes. fifa are corrupt. twitter footie fans are racist, sexist and parochial. we deserve each other.” There’s a flood of complex, fascinating, and at times alarming commentary on twitter and elsewhere about this decision, and more is sure to come in the next days.

We do have to admit, though, that this does signal a quite profound reconfiguration in the sites of footballing power, a de-centering away from the traditional homes of the World Cup in Western Europe and Latin America. After all, the series starting in 2010 will look like this: South Africa, Brazil, Russia, Qatar. Whatever else you might say, it’s certainly an interesting itinerary. It’s not exactly that FIFA has been thoroughly decolonized — most of us will probably die before we get to go to another African World Cup — but it’s clear that new centers of power and influence are emerging. They are doing so, of course, through the usual unsavory methods used to gain institutional power. But they are doing so nonetheless. And, if nothing else, we will certainly now be treated to twelve years of discussions about Qatar’s laws, climate, security apparatus, gender dynamics, and much else.

The evident beffudlement on the part of many of us, I think, in part has to do with not being quite sure what the narrative about this decision, and this 2022 World Cup, is supposed to be. It was in a way easy, and compelling, to tell a particular story about the power and meaning of the South Africa World Cup. Brazil 2014 seems profoundly natural in a different way. But what is the story we will tell ourselves about Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022? (I’ll admit, I just had to add a category for Qatar on the blog; but I know it’ll get plenty of use now.) I don’t know, but I eagerly await it’s unfolding: after all, while little else is guaranteed in life, we know that people will always talk, and talk, passionately, profusely, and often uninhibitedly, about all that might go right, and wrong, about future World Cups.

I’ve asked one of our former Duke student contributors, Steffi Decker, who along with Umberto Plaja produced an excellent page here about the decision World Cup bid process, to offer her thoughts on this too — they’ll be posted soon.

Yellow and Green in Haiti: A Footnote to the Election Crisis

In the midst of the brewing crisis over the election in Haiti, I’m taking solace in small, containable observations. Jude Celestin, the ruling party candidate who now stands accused by twelve other candidates of having carried out fraud at the polls today, made a shrewd choice in his campaign colors. As Emily Troutman noted in a pre-election article on the candidates, the green and white of his posters and shirts are the same as those of the Brazilian national team. Which means a huge swath of the Haitian population already had a shirt ready to wear if they wanted to go to a rally for Celestin. To top it off, his number — the one voters were to check if they chose him — was none other than #10.  You can see musician Gasman Couleur sporting his Brazil #10 shirt at a Celestin rally (photo from Haitianbeatz.com).

Basically, it was as if Celestin was trying to channel the spirit of Pelé. It doesn’t seem, for now, to have really worked. One of Celestin’s rivals, meanwhile, the singer Michel Martelly, has opted for a bright pink as his campaign color, as Emily Troutman also notes. (Her tweets from Haiti have been extremely informative today.) Which prompted one of the few humorous tweets to come out about Haiti today, which hoped that if Martelly wins he won’t change the red and blue of Haiti’s flag to pink and red. In a pre-election rally, meanwhile, Martelly taunted Celestin, suggesting maybe he was bad luck for Brazil. “You’ve seen Celestin’s posters, right? Green and yellow? That’s probably why Brazil keeps losing.”

There was, until this morning, cautious optimism that the election would go ahead relatively smoothly. Now, with candidates calling for an annulment of the election and demonstrations tomorrow and the electoral commission declaring the election is valid, it’s unclear what is going to transpire this week. But we are likely heading into a serious political crisis of accusation and counter-accusation, perhaps worse. I’ll offer one half-joking hope: maybe the fact that there is a Real Madrid-Barcelona match (El Clasico) is being played tomorrow will cool things down a bit? The game is always a major draw in Haiti, as Laura Wagner reported here last Spring.

Moments like this leave me wishing politics was a little more like football where — for all the drama, inscrutability, tragedy, and unfairness — there at are least some rules, and you know that at some point the game will end.

Kicking the Silence

A few days ago, before the U.S. Women’s Team’s first game against Italy in World Cup qualifying, Abby Wambach told the New York Times that the (obviously slightly bitter) joke on the team was that they had to do badly this year in order to get media attention. “The irony of the whole thing is that when the U.S. men win, they get the coverage, but when the U.S. women lose, we get the coverage. . . The joke among us is that we planned it this way and that we knew this was the only way to get the coverage that we think we deserve.”

Now the team has squeaked a little closer to making it to the World Cup with a true last-minute goal against Italy in Padua. Next week’s game in Illinois will determine whether this becomes the first Women’s World Cup not to include the U.S., long one of the dominant teams in the competition.

The last weeks have represented one of the most interesting and important transformations in the history of global women’s football, suggesting an expansion and a shift in the dynamics of the game. Mexico’s victory over the U.S., and the prominence of U.S.-born women’s players on foreign teams, have highlighted the rise of the women’s game in other country’s and the attendant pressures put on the U.S. within this larger competition. It’s exciting, dramatic, and certainly worth following. The latest game had some remarkable drama to it, since in fact the game probably should have stopped before Alex Morgan scored the bold winning goal. Still, with U.S. qualification hanging by a thread it’s a frightening, perhaps decisive, moment, as Jennifer Pel noted.

Alex Morgan at U-20 World Cup This Past Summer

But, as Jennifer Doyle has pointed out in an appropriately furious blog post, it has been very difficult to follow all of this except via twitter. As she wrote about yesterday’s game: “Most of us fans didn’t see today’s game. We couldn’t. ESPN exiled the match to the dark corner of the internet known as “ESPN3.com” – accessible only to some cable television subscribers.” The ESPN reporter assigned to the game wasn’t actually there. Worse, about the next, decisive match to be played next Saturday: “Right now there is no plan to show the match on television. SHAME ON ESPN, the sexist bastards.”

She’s urging, via twitter, that we call ESPN to urge them to actually show the crucial game.

A decade after 1999, it’s amazing that this is still where we’re at. The usual booster stories about soccer in the U.S., in classic American fashion, make it sounds like a story of inevitable progress and expansion, a manifest destiny of sorts. Increasingly, though, especially for women’s soccer, it seems like we might be caught instead in some sort of nightmarish labyrinth, where moments of triumph and seemingly irrefutable progress just lead us back into silent alleys again. After decades of institutional investment, the development of tremendous talent, the incredible devotion of millions of players and fans, it’s still impossible to see a crucial international game on TV.

What will make a change? A march on ESPN? A million players, in their uniforms, on the mall, demanding to be heard, and seen?

Karim! Redux: France 2, England 1

An irruption of football into an otherwise glum Wednesday afternoon: what could be better?

Even better since it delivered a nice showing today by the French team, to my relief. And in Wembley no less. Between the two teams, France is clearly limping out of the hospital a little more quickly, it seems. Though it must have been a stressful afternoon for Arsene Wenger, as Liz Hottel pointed out.

What is so pleasing about this is that they not only pass the ball around nicely and set up good plays, but the result is actually, with some frequency, the scoring of goals, rather than a perpetual string of near misses. They seem at ease on the pitch, able to build up, with a certain understanding. It’s like watching a real football team! The first goal here by Benzema was inspiring.

Meanwhile, nice to see the U.S. do well against South Africa, and nice too to see the Cape Town Stadium — where I spent a delicious evening watching Holland-Uruguay this past World Cup — being used for the event, a fund-raiser for the Mandela Children’s Fund. Peter Alegi provided this nice preview of the match-up, and of U.S. soccer more broadly, from his perch in Cape Town, and a nice report from the game. I also recommend his excellent dispatches of the recent African Women’s World Cup, also played in South Africa in recent weeks, culminating in a victory for Nigeria.

Watching Ghana Beat the U.S. with Mick and Bill

Courtesy of Grant Wahl’s twitter feed, here’s another take on one of the defining moments of the World Cup: the Ghana-U.S. game as viewed by Mick Jagger, aptly tagged “bad luck charm” by Wahl.

You can read my account of this game as seen from Johannesburg here, and travel to the streets of Accra that night here. I’m not sure why, but it’s somehow reassuring that, from the vantage point of a stadium, it seems pretty much as if Mick and Bill are about like everyone else.

Samba Football, German Style

Although many of you have perhaps seen this, I never had before: it made me recall with nostalgia the show Soccer Made in Germany,which provided many of us here a brief flash of the joys of European football as youths lost in 1970s U.S.. Here: our German friends provide perhaps the most surreal ode to football ever produced…

That I found out from my friends at my favorite Durham Chocolatier only adds to the joy of it all.

Karim!

France, happily (for me at least) continued it’s strong run in Euro qualifiers with a convincing victory over Luxembourg, which is reassuring since the team has a bit of tradition of wasting such games with draws. The first goal by Benzema was a beauty.