Archive for the 'Racism' Category

Dec 07 2013

Profile Image of Maggie Lin

German Nationalism Courtesy of Football

Filed under Fans,Germany,History,Racism

The 20th century was a wicked roller coaster ride for Germany.

Two World Wars, each spawned by high levels of nationalism, both resulted in German defeat. In the course of less than fifty years, Germany’s territory, economy, and politics were reduced to rubble, rebuilt, and then subsequently destroyed multiple times. Post World War II, the Allied Powers split Germany into two countries to separate East from West during the Cold War, with the very visible divide in the form of the Berlin Wall. Only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did East and West Germany begin the process of reunification. So, where has that left German citizens?


Since the end of World War II, Germans have been wary of displaying national pride, which has been suggested by scholars to be a result of war shame and guilt [1]. Even today, nearly seventy years since the end of WWII and over twenty years since the reunification, Germans show relatively low national pride compared to other nations with similar economic and political stability [2]. However, when it comes to football, the display of national pride is a completely different story.

Much to everyone’s surprise, when Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup, German flags flew everywhere during the World Cup. It even came to a surprise for Germans at the time, as the display of the flag became the No. 2 topic of conversation, right behind coverage of the actual World Cup games themselves [3]. Prior to 2006, fans who waved or wore flags in public were less commonplace [4]. In the 2010 World Cup, Germans who crowded into the stadium that held the semifinal between Germany and Spain covered themselves in the nation’s colors — black, gold, and red — and pridefully sang the Deutschland national anthem [5].,,16032809_303,00.jpg

However, this rise in patriotism due to football has not been met without opposition. Back in Germany during the 2010 World Cup, shopkeeper Ibrahim Bassal, who is a German immigrant himself, hung up a giant German flag outside his shop that had been stolen twice — likely by members of the radical left-wing — and someone even tried to light the flag on fire [6]. Since WWII, Germans have been particularly sensitive to the topic of displaying national pride, as it typically triggers thoughts of war, blind-allegiance, and shame.

Opponents of the increase in nationalism also cite a rise in xenophobia and racism as a main issue. After Germany defeated Denmark in a game during the 2012 UEFA European Championship, anonymous users on Twitter made racist comments about German player Mesut Özil, who is third generation Turkish-German, in hopes of sparking a hate campaign [7]. Since German Turks form the largest minority in Germany [8], it makes sense that these racist comments would be particularly alarming.


Even though many view sport as an equalizer without any place in politics, it is difficult to deny that football has a history of being manipulated as a form propaganda. Could the football-induced nationalism directly lead to increased xenophobia or violence targeting minorities? Or is that stretching it a bit far? Many Germans and critics will continue to be cautious as traumatizing flashbacks of Nazi Germany haunt their psyche.

Contrastingly, is it so terrible to have the ability to publicly show pride in one’s own nation without being scorned? Germany will continue to emerge from its difficult past, and these are just some of the issues that Germans along with the rest of the world will have to deal with eventually. This is a particularly fascinating case study, and as the 2014 World Cup rolls around, it will be interesting to see the pro- and anti-nationalism dynamics play out once again.

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Jul 24 2013

Profile Image of Joshua Nadel

Invisible Men? Racism in Honduran Soccer

* This article is cross-posted with the blog ¿Opio del pueblo?

During the Mexico-Trinidad/Tobago Gold Cup quarterfinal the other night, I was part of an engaging twitter discussion about racism in CONCACAF soccer that centered around these posts:

It has struck me how much blatant racism you see around #GoldCup chat sites/twitter directed at Caribbean teams. @StaycoolFanzine @jhnadel

— Laurent Dubois (@Soccerpolitics) July 20, 2013


Conversation with @jhnadel makes me ponder why racism in Latin American football is discussed/addressed less than in Europe. Or am I wrong?

— Laurent Dubois (@Soccerpolitics) July 20, 2013

In the United States we hear a lot about racism in soccer, but it is always in the context of events in Europe. Most people who follow the sport know about the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand affair, for which Terry was stripped of the England captaincy. And many are familiar with the more recent cases involving fans making monkey sounds at  Kevin Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli. Even when a Latin American player is involved–such as in the  Luis Suárez-Patrice Evra incident–the question of whether or not something qualifies as racism is interpreted through a European (not to mention a U.S.) lens. 

As the above tweets suggest, however, issues of race are very much alive in Latin American soccer.  Yet very few anglophone soccer fans in the United States are aware of racism in the Latin American game. This is in part because the European game is so much more visible in this country–ESPN shows highlights of the EPL and the Serie A, but not the Liga MX or the Argentine Primera División. But it is also because in much of Latin America questions of race have been consciously obscured. As a result, for most people in the United States race and racism in Latin America are almost completely invisible.

Racism has existed in Latin American soccer since the arrival of the sport.  Chile famously protested its loss against Uruguay in the 1916 South American Championship due to the presence of two “Africans” in the Uruguayan squad. In Brazil, after the 1924 season, Rio’s major teams (Flamengo, Fluminense, and Botafogo, among others) formed a breakaway league rather than play against the mixed race Vasco da Gama (in Portuguese, scroll to 1923).  Racism is, in fact, embedded in the definition of Brazil’s futebol arte, but that is a post for another day. Today, I’d just like to call attention to some recent cases of racism–and fights against racism–going on in Honduran soccer, and look at some of the historical context behind questions of race in Honduras.

Before looking at all of that, I want to point out the parallel racial/ethnic dynamics in Honduras and some European nations. France is roughly 85 percent European, with a mixture of North African, Caribbean, West African, and Asian making up the rest of its population. In Italy, nearly 95 percent of the population is white, while England’s white population stands at around 85 percent. Honduras is ostensibly a mestizo nation: according to official statistics approximately 90 percent of the population is a mixture of indigenous and European. Afro-Hondurans officially make up about 2 percent of the population, and indigenous peoples comprise the rest. [1]  Given the similar ethnic profiles of Honduras and European nations–and the propensity of racism in European soccer–perhaps racism in Honduran soccer should not come as a surprise. 

If you look at the Honduran national team, however, you could be forgiven for not thinking that Honduras was predominantly mestizo: roughly 50 percent of the players are of African descent. Of course, sports teams often do not accurately reflect the ethnic or racial make-up of a nation, as socio-economic realities of minority populations–in many places around the world–make sports seem like one of the only viable avenues out of poverty.  


The Johnny Palacios Affair

In October 2011, a couple of weeks before the Suárez and Terry incidents, Johnny Palacios made a stir in Honduras after receiving a red card in league match for talking back to the referee. Palacios, who plays for Olimpia and played for the Honduran national team from 2009-2011 (and whose brothers Jerry and Wilson still play on the national squad), accused the referee of racial abuse.  Asserting that the referee, Mario Moncada, had used racial epithets in the past, Palacios explained that he had grown tired of the taunts and was defending himself. According to Palacios, who plays for Olimpia and the Honduran national team, the referee called him a “black homosexual (negro culero).”[2] Moncada denied the charges, claiming that since he had a black grandchild he could not be racist and certainly would not use racist language. True or not, the allegations opened up a nagging question for Honduran soccer and Honduras in general. Palacios, by the way, received a three-game suspension for his red card. 


Wilson Nuñez, et al.

Palacios was not the first player to complain of racial abuse in Honduras. Milton “Tyson” Nuñez, a leading player on Honduran national teams from the mid-1990s until 2008, complained in 2009 of racial taunts that he suffered as a soccer player. Nuñez recounted that in stadiums and on the street people hurled racial slurs at him. Rodolfo Richardson Smith also remembered hearing racist chants during games in the Honduran professional league. More surprising, he said, was that even when playing for the national team, Hondurans insulted him based on his race. Smith noted that when he played well he had no problems, but if made a mistake on the field fans used racial epithets and threw rocks at his house. In 2013, while playing in professionally in Guatemala, Nuñez took off his shirt and shorts and walked off the field in the face of racist chants from opposing fans.  


Osman Chávez

In May 2011 Osman Chávez, central defender for the national squad and captain for the 2013 Gold Cup, began discussions with other Afro-Honduran players. They had grown tired of hearing racist taunts during games and seeing comments to articles posted on the Web that denigrated them based on their race. As a result, the players–Chávez, David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, Hendry Thomas, and Wilson Palacios–along with non-black members of the national team agreed to boycott national media until the Honduran newspapers’ online versions filtered out Web comments that disparaged their race. While the long-term effects of the campaign remain unknown, it generated a good deal of immediate interest. All of the Honduran newspapers picked up the story and one, Deportivo Diez, created an antiracism Facebook page. Chávez has begun to speak out whenever he can against racism.    


Institutional Soccer Racism?

Fans and referees are not the only ones accused of racism. In the past coaches and team directors discussed the “problems” of having “too many blacks” on the national team. Indeed, many coaches refuse to play black players in midfield, which is considered to be one of the more cerebral positions on the field. Instead, they prefer to play them in more “athletic” roles in defense, as strikers, or as wingers. One Honduran politician suggested that black players “are not intelligent” and bring down the play of the squad.Others think that racism does not exist in Honduran soccer and accuse black players of imagining the problem. Former national team psychologist Mauro Rosales suggested that Chávez and his colleagues overreacted to racist comments, claiming that “blacks, by nature, have low self-esteem and therefore look for ways to call attention to themselves.” Still others affiliated with Honduran soccer dismiss charges of racism entirely. In an interview with the newspaper Proceso Digital, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, the president of the Honduran Soccer Federation and ex-president of the country, not only denied claims of racism in Honduran soccer but suggested that the word “racism” be “completely erased from the language” because Hondurans were not racist people. 


Context (because I’m a historian)

In fact, there is a long history of racism in Honduras, which is visible in the Honduran narrative about how Afro-Hondurans got to the country. According to the dominant history of the country, there are three Afro-Honduran groups, all of whom arrive well after colonization: the Miskito (a mixture of runaway slaves and indigenous), the Garifuna (deported to Roatán from St. Vincent by the British in 1797), and the negros ingleses (free blacks who left British Caribbean in the early- to mid- 1800s and settled in the Bay Islands, augmented by people brought to work on banana plantations in the late 1800s and early 1900s). Late arrivals, these populations never fully integrated with the rest of Honduras, and stayed segregated on the north coast and on the Bay Islands.  Or so the story goes. 

In fact, the Afro-Honduran population was much more integrated in Honduran society than many would have liked.  African slaves were a major part of Honduran society from its colonial beginnings. Though Honduran mines never contributed more than 5 percent to Spanish coffers, they still produced a good amount of ore and required slaves.  By 1540 more than 2000 enslaved Africans worked in Honduras. Comayagua, a town in the center of the country near Tegucigalpa and a major mining center throughout the colonial period, had at least four hundred enslaved Africans working in the mines. In the 1600s population statistics for people of African descent get spotty. Still, entire towns were populated by people of African heritage. In 1801, according to Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo, the 7,910 people who lived in the towns of Yoro and Olanchito were “all mulattos.”[3] In other words, when we scratch at the surface of race in Honduras, it becomes clear that the dominant narrative obscures more about race in Honduras than it shows.

In the early twentieth century, nationalist elites further obfuscated the question of race by consciously crafting a mestizo history for the country. This was happening in much of the region, as the indigenous past became a powerful tool for uniting people behind the idea of the modern nation. This drive had its most famous proponent in the Mexican José Vasconcelos. He wrote about a cosmic race, born of racial mixing in Latin America, which would lead the way to a greater human existence. Vasconcelos nevertheless retained a highly eurocentric view of supposed racial characteristics. To form the cosmic race, European rationality mixed with African passion and Native American simplicity and honor.



In Honduras intellectuals and government officials such as Alfonso Guillén Zelaya, Jesus Aguilar Paz, and Gregorio Ferrera followed Vasconcelos’ lead. They began searching for indigenous heroes to add to the Honduran pantheon and to confirm the country’s status as a mestizo nation. In the process they minimized the country’s “primitive” African past by crafting historical narratives that excluded or vilified blacks. In the mid-1920s Honduran officials found their national hero: Lempira. A warrior from the Lenca indigenous group, Lempira valiantly led the fight against Spanish invaders in the 1530s until his death at the hands of the conquistadors. Although no images of the indigenous leader existed, the Honduran government produced one (which can still be seen today on the Honduran currency that bears his name). He fit the bill: he represented the racialized ideal of the indigenous man as noble, strong, and honorable.[4] In embracing Lempira, Honduran nationalists of the early twentieth century consciously chose to create an image of the nation built on European and indigenous bases, thereby ignoring–and erasing from national history to the extent possible–the black population. In other words, it was only in the early twentieth century that Honduras invented itself as a biracial nation. This bi-raciality was reinforced throughout the twentieth century in the Honduran education system and the census, which failed to recognize any category that allowed for African heritage.[5]


And So?

So these are some of the historical roots of racism in Honduras. What does it mean in soccer? On one hand, perhaps, little: since the first Honduran national soccer team took the field against Guatemala in 1921, Afro-Hondurans have been included on the team. On the other hand, national sporting icons who are black still suffer racist treatment at the hands of their compatriots.  There are no black coaches or referees in the Honduran first division. After generations of being invisible in the national narrative, Afro-Hondurans are still not considered fully Honduran. They remain outside of “normal” Honduran identity due to their skin color, and present a challenge to the dominant narrative that says to be Honduran is to be mestizo.

And what of our perception in the United States?  We could say that U.S. lack of understanding of racism in Honduran (and Latin American) soccer results from a double invisibility: it exists due to the historical invisibility of people of African descent in the region and is exacerbated by the overweening focus in the United States on the European game.

**Note: Some of the foregoing is material adapted from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, being published by the University of Florida Press. 


[1]  República de Honduras. Características generales de las Garífunas conforme a los resultados del XI censo nacional y de vivienda, año 2001, (Tegucigalpa: INE, 2001).

[2] Some sources report the slur as being “negro de mierda” (fucking black).

[3]Luz María Martínez Montiel, ed, Presencia Africana en Centroamérica (Mexico City: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, 1993), 9; and Rafael Leiva Vivas, “Presencia negra en Honduras,” in Presencia Africana en Centroamérica, edited by Luz María Martínez Montiel (Mexico City: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, 1993), 123. Gold peaked in production prior to 1565, after which it declined. But between 1540 and 1542, more than 200,000 pesos worth of gold came from Honduran mines. See Linda Newson, “Labor in the Colonial Mining Industry of Honduras,” Americas 39, no. 2 (October 1982), 186, 193. See also William L. Sherman, Forced Native Labor in Colonial Central America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972). Sherman notes that black slaves were “more desirable” than indigenous people, and cost more–between 100 and 200 pesos in 1550. See ibid., 232-33 and note 387; and Robinson A. Herrera, “‘Por que no sabemos firmar': Black Slaves in Early Guatemala,” Americas 57, no. 2 (October 2000), 247 note. See also Robinson A. Herrera, Natives, Europeans, and Africans in Sixteenth-Century Santiago de Guatemala (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo, La Intendencia de Comayagua (Tegucigalpa: Litografía López, 2004), 12. 

[4] Dario Euraque, Estado, poder, nacionalidad y raza en la historia de Honduras (Choluteca: Ediciones Subirana, 1996), 79-81; and Breny Mendoza, “La desmitologización del mestizaje en Honduras,” Mesoamérica 42 (December 2001): 266-68.

[5] The Honduran census of 2001 included African descended ethnicities for the first time since the early 1900s.







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Mar 20 2013

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

The Blood of the Impure

This Post was originally published at Football is a Country. My thanks to them for permission to cross-post.

The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is, if you think about it, a pretty nasty song. It dreams, in one of its more memorable verses, that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields.” It’s a rousing anthem, to be sure, and I myself can frequently be heard humming it to myself in advance of a match being played by Les Bleus, or as I ride my bike or do the dishes. I’ve found that it’s sometimes hard to find a French person (at least if you hang out, as I do, with too many intellectuals), who can actually sing it without irony. And yet, over the past 26 years, the question of whether a particular subset of French men – those who play on the national football team – sing the Marseillaise under certain conditions has been a rather unhealthy obsession in France (we’ve blogged about it before, when Kinshasa-born flanker Yannick Nyanga sobbed uncontrollably during the anthem ahead of a rugby match vs Australia last year).

We are now being treated to what feels to me like Act 467 of this drama. Karim Benzema, as anyone who attentively watches French football matches knows, doesn’t sing the anthem before matches. In a recent interview, asked why, he answered in a pleasingly flippant way: “It’s not because I sing that I’m going to score three goals. If I don’t sing the Marseillaise, but then the game starts and I score three goals, I don’t think at the end of the game anyone is going to say that I didn’t sing the Marseillaise.” Pushed further on the question, he invoked none other than Zinedine Zidane who, like Benzema, was the child of Algerian immigrants to France – and who also happens to be the greatest French footballer of all time, and the one to whom the team owes its one little star on its jersey: “No one is going to force me to sing the Marseillaise. Zidane, for instance, didn’t necessarily sing it. And there are others. I don’t see that it’s a problem.”

Ah, Karim, but it is a problem, don’t you see? In fact, your decision about whether to vocalize or not, as you stand in line under the careful scrutiny of cameras, about to enter into a hyper-stressful and aggressive sporting match during which your every action will be dissected and discussed, is an unmistakable sign about whether or not the true France will survive or alternatively be submerged in a tide of unruly immigrants and their descendants.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as Michel Platini has noted, in his generation no footballers ever sang the Marseillaise, and that “white” footballers – even the Muslim Franck Ribéry, who at best mutters a bit during the anthem but is much more enthusiastic in his pre-game prayers to Allah – are rarely if ever asked this particular question, even so some will continue to insist that your choice not to sing is a window onto your disloyal soul. As the Front National explained: “This football mercenary, paid 1484 Euros per hour, shows an inconceivable and inacceptable disdain for the jersey that he is lucky to be able to wear. Karim Benzema does not “see the problem” with not singing the Marseillaise. Well, French people wouldn’t see any problem with having him no longer play for the French team.”

Some genealogy is in order here. In 1996, Jean-Marie Le Pen first levied this accusation against the French team. France was playing in the European Cup, and playing well. But he was a bit disturbed by something he saw: an awful lot of them seemed, well, not really to be French. “It’s a little bit artificial to bring in foreign players and baptize them ‘Equipe de France,’” he opined. The team, he went on – with blithe disregard for the bald falsity of what he was saying, since no one can play on the French team who is not a French citizen, and nearly all of the players had in any case been born in France – was full of “fake Frenchmen who don’t sing the Marseillaise or visibly don’t know it.” When pressed on these comments a few days later, he lamented that while players from other countries in the tournament sang their anthems, “our players don’t because they don’t want to. Sometimes they even pout in a way that makes it clear that it’s a choice on their part. Or else they don’t know it. It’s understandable since no one teaches it to them.”  [For more on this, see Laurent’s excellent book, Soccer Empire — Ed]

The response to Le Pen’s 1996 comments was immediate and resounding: everyone, or almost everyone, called him an idiot. Politicians, pundits, and journalists all piled on, falling over themselves to denounce his comments and declare their love for the French team. In fact he managed to do something rather extraordinary with his comments, pushing a group of athletes – most of whom would likely have never made public political statements about the questions of race, immigration, and identity in France – to become activists of a kind.

Christian Karembeu – from the Pacific territory of New Caledonia – made a decision. “From that on, I didn’t sign the Marseillaise. To raise people’s consciousness, so that everyone will know who we are.” He knew the words perfectly, he explained. “In the colonies, everyone has to learn the Marseillaise by heart at school. That means that I, from zero to twenty-five years old, knew the Marseillaise perfectly.” But when he heard the song, Karembeu explained, he thought “about his ancestors” – indigenous Kanaks who had been drafted in New Caledonia and died on the battlefields of World War I for France. “The history of France is that of its colonies and its wealth. Above all, I am a Kanak. I can’t sign the French national anthem because I know the history of my people.”


One of Karembeu’s teammates, the Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram, also experienced the event as a kind of political awakening. He made a different choice when it came to the song: he always sang it loudly, and famously off tune, often with tears in his eyes. But doing so was part of a political stance that overlapped with Karembeu’s: in the next years, Thuram became a powerful and potent voice criticizing Le Pen, and later Nicholas Sarkozy, and advocating for acknowledgment, study, and confrontation with the past of slavery and colonialism. In his retirement, he has – in a move that, to say the least, is not the usual path taken by post-career athletes – devoted himself to anti-racist education, and recently curated an exhibit at the Quai Branly outlining the history of colonial and racial representations of “the Other.”

Le Pen’s comments were also a case of spectacularly bad timing. Though France didn’t win the European Cup, a team made up of most of the same players did the unthinkable in 1998 and won the World Cup in Paris. This victory would, in any situation, have been greeted with an outpouring of joy. But thanks largely to Le Pen’s comments – and to the fact that it was Thuram and Zidane – who scored the pivotal goals in the semi-final and final, the event was greeted by many in France as a powerful celebration of a new multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation. There was an outpouring of comments from all sides that saw, in the team, precisely the opposite of what Le Pen had suggested: a France which, thanks to the contributions of all its different peoples, of all backgrounds, had won a critical victory.

Zinedine Zidane, for instance, reflected on the World Cup victory as a moment of consolidation and reconciliation for him and his family, and more broadly for Algerians and their descendants in France, many of whom waved Algerian flags to celebrate. “There was something very moving about seeing all those Algerian flags mixed in with the French ones in the streets on the night of our victory. This alchemy of victory proved suddenly that my father and mother had not made the journey for nothing: it was the son of a Kabyle that offered up the victory, but it was France that became champion of the world. In one goal by one person, two cultures became one.” The victory was “the most beautiful response to intolerance.” He described the victory as an explicit response to Le Pen: “Frankly, what does it matter if you belt out the Marseillaise or if you live it inside yourself? … Do we have to belt out this warrior’s song to be patriotic?”

It is, perhaps, this Zidane that Benzema was trying to channel in his comments. Of course, they come at a very different time. Zidane could speak from the pinnacle of victory. Benzema speaks in the midst of a long period of relative failure on the part of the French team – the debacle of 2010, the ultimate disappointment of the European Cup last summer, and now an ongoing struggle to qualify for 2014 in Brazil. The current debate about the Marseillaise, too, is haunted by the many controversies surrounding the booing of the anthem during matches pitting France against Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco over the past years. In September 2001, after pro-Algeria fans invaded the pitch during a game against France, Le Pen once again used football as a touchstone for his political campaign, this time with more success. He announced his candidacy for president in front of the Stade de France a few weeks later, explaining he had chosen the site because it was where “our national anthem was booed.” The next year, he made it into the second round of the presidential election, forcing the French to choose between him and Jacques Chirac. The French team mobilized again, with even Zidane urging people to vote against Le Pen.

We might imagine that there is, somewhere in the Front National office, presumably some kind of little file, or perhaps a handbook, on how to take advantage of various incidents on the football pitch for political gain. And one can predict that, like Benzema, future footballers who – because of the accident of their ancestry – are be suspected of disloyalty by French xenophobes will be asked this same question again and again: “Why don’t you sing the Marseillaise?” They’ll be able to look back to find various ways to answer the question, and indeed will have quite the menu: do you politely offer a “Va te faire foutre!” with sauce Karembeu, Thuram, Zidane, or Benzema? Eventually, one might be able to offer an entire seminar on the meaning and performance of nationalism using nothing but examples from the debate about football and the Marseillaise. The field of French Cultural Studies will eventually acknowledge that Jean-Marie Le Pen has been our greatest friend over the years, a generative thinker without whom we might have little to write about.

In the meantime, on the pitch France will need all the help it can get as they are about to take on reigning World and double European champions Spain. Many fans will probably be open to the players using any form of inspiration they might need in order to score some goals and win this critical game, so that they won’t put us all through the usual torture of dragging out qualification until the last minute. (Remember the hand of Henry?)

Do they want to pray to Allah, Jesus, Zarathustra? Be our guest. Invoke their Ancestors the Gauls, channel the spirit of the founder of the World Cup, the Frenchman Jules Rimet, or call down the West African warrior god Ogun? Fine with us. At the end of the game, as Benzema has pointed out, if they’ve scored three goals and pull off a win, no one will remember what they were singing when the game began.

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Aug 03 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

The Hijab on the Pitch

Members of the Iranian National Women’s Football team (Source: FIFPro)


On Friday, July 6, the French Football Federation announced that it would ban the wearing of hijab during all organized competitions held in France. The Federation declared that in doing so it was fulfilling its “duty to respect the constitutional and legislative principles of secularism that prevails in our country and features in its statutes.”

The decision came one day after the International Football Association Board — the body within FIFA that governs the laws of the game — unanimously declared that it would, for a “trial period,” allow players to wear the hijab during international competitions. France, then, is seeking to carve out an exception to an international ruling, one that links its football regulations to a broad set of laws that ban veils in public schools and public administration, as well as banning the burqa in all public spaces.

(The hijab covers the hair and neck; generally the term “veils” is used to describe coverings that also cover part of the face, though the usage varies quite a bit; and a burqacovers the entire face).

Scholars including Joan Scott and John Bowen have analyzed the history of these broader debates in rich detail, tying them both to longer colonial histories and contemporary battles over secularism, Islam, and immigration in France. The banning of the hijab from the football pitch was initially a relatively minor subplot in these broader battles over veils, hijab, and burqas in Europe and Canada. But the involvement of FIFA, the Iranian government, a Jordanian Prince, and the United Nations have helped to transform the terrain of football into an increasingly important battleground over the hijab.

The recent controversies are part of a longer, complex story of the presence of Muslim women in football, a topic nicely examined by Risa Isard on the Soccer Politics blog.  But their more immediate background goes back to 2007. In that year, in Quebec, a referee at Under-12 girls’ soccer tournament ordered an 11-year-old player named Asmahan Mansour (pictured below) to remove the hijab she was wearing during play. She refused, and was told she would have to leave the field. As Mansour later explained: “I think it’s pathetic, really, ’cause it’s [the head scarf] tucked in my shirt.”

Asmahan Mansour (Source: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

In a powerful — but since little-reported — show of solidarity, her entire team along with four others playing in the tournament protested, refusing to continue playing unless Mansour was allowed to play. Their instant reaction to the decision speaks volumes. To them, it seems, Mansour’s hijab was a normal and unproblematic part of their daily lives as players, and the insistence that she remove it seemed an intolerable intervention — one they were so insulted by that they preferred to forfeit than to accept it.

Part of the reason for the strong reaction the girls had to the referee’s intervention is that Quebec’s position was at odds with that of other regions of Canada. In Ontario, for instance — and in Ottawa, where Mansour was from — officials and referees had allowed girls to wear the hijab as long as it was properly tucked into clothing so as not to present a hazard on the field. But the intervention on the football pitch was part of a broader pattern in Quebec, which like France has banned the burqa in all public spaces.

Mansour’s case was referred to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in March 2007. They agreed with the decision of the referee, saying that Law 4 of the Rules of the Game listed the articles players could wear, and did not include headscarves. “If you play football there’s a set of laws and rules, and law four outlines the basic equipment,” said one IFAB member. “It’s absolutely right to be sensitive to people’s thoughts and philosophies, but equally there has to be a set of laws that are adhered to, and we favour law four being adhered to.”

The IFAB decision was, perhaps intentionally, vague: no mention was made of safety, the banning of religious or political symbols, or other reasons to prevent women from wearing a hijab. The conclusion was just that the current laws didn’t allow them to do so. In an interview, legal scholar Linda Sheryl Greene explores the potential implications of the decision. What became clear over time was that it was a precedent-setting decision in the world of football. Though national federations still had leeway about how they dealt with the issue in local competitions, the FIFA decision had a necessary trickle-down effect: federations couldn’t place players who insisted on wearing the hijab in teams in international competition.

As importantly, FIFA became the first global international organization to officially take up the issue of the hijab as a human rights issue. (The European Union Court had, on previous occasions, upheld the banning of hijab in both France and Turkey, rebuffing legal activists who claimed they were violations of human rights; but these decisions are territorially limited.) As a result, FIFA’s decision took on a kind of symbolic importance that the members of the organization had perhaps not, at first, expected it would.

The 2007 decision didn’t provide much guidance for subsequent attempts to justify the decision. After all, IFAB can change the Laws of the Game, as they have done on frequent occasions: so why not change them to allow hijab? In response to questions and pressure about the decision, however, FIFA and national federations offered a variety of justifications for the ban. One of the most frequent has been to insist that hijabs pose a safety hazard — that they could get caught during play, for instance, and perhaps strangle a player. This particular argument has always seemed like it would collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. After all, long hair is more likely to get pulled or tangled in play. And one could ask: if wearing something that covers your head poses a danger to players, why are goal-keepers allowed to do so according to Law 4, as Petr Cech famously does to protect his skull in the wake of an injury received on the pitch? The safety argument was probably deployed because it seemed the least controversial, a way to skirt the obvious cultural and religious struggles at work in this debate. The problem for those who wanted to use it to stop the approval of the hijab is that it was also relatively easy to confront: all that was needed was to develop a hijab that was relatively tight and attached with velcro (the way Cech’s headgear is) to avoid the danger of it being stuck around a player’s neck.

Another problem for FIFA is that there has, at least to my knowledge, never been any concern expressed by players themselves about the hijab. Indeed, like the girls in Quebec who walked off the field in 2007, many players have supported the rights of teammates to play while wearing one. The global player’s organization FIFPro came out in support of lifting the ban on veils, for instance. The organization Right2Wear has been advocating at the grassroots for women’s right to wear headscarves while playing football.

Such organizations on their own, however, probably would not have had the clout to reverse FIFA’s decision. Unlike France, Quebec, or Europe more broadly — where the bans on veils and burqas have been contested but never successfully overturned—FIFA has to deal with powerful internal constituencies who opposed their ruling on the hijab. For football federations from North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia seeking to develop the women’s game, the ban on the hijab represented a serious obstacle. Given the increasingly important role played by the region within FIFA, the association began as an ideal site for international political pressure against the ban.

The process of reversing the ban began in 2011, when FIFA officials stopped the Iranian national women’s team from playing in an Olympic qualifying game because their players were wearing hijab. The team was literally minutes from entering the field when they were told they could not play, though FIFA later claimed that the Iranian federation had been warned in advance they would not be allowed to play. Interestingly, during that incident FIFA justified the ban on hijab on the basis of regulations that outlaw the presence of “politics or religion” on uniforms, not based on the safety dangers cited in 2007. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacked FIFA, referring to them as “dictators” and “colonialists,” while the Iranian ambassador to Jordan referred to the leaders of the international footballing organization as “extremists.”

As FIFA cynics pointed out at the time, the organization was perhaps the only one in the world capable of making Ahmadinejad sympathetic to a broader global consituency — especially on the issue of women’s rights. If Iran had been on its own in confronting FIFA, they might not have made much headway. But others also began mobilizing to criticize the ban. Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein took up the cause, and in March 2012 insisted that FIFA should overturn the ban. He argued that this decision was vital “to ensure that all women are able to play football at all levels without any barriers or discrimination.” (Jordan’s national women’s team had been forced not to select certain players for international competition because they wished to wear the hijab when they were playing.) And a United Nations sports advisor wrote to FIFA also urging them to lift the ban, arguing that “FIFA has the responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to participate in football.”

In March of this past year, FIFA voted to end the ban and allow players on the pitch in new, specially-designed, velcro-fastened hijab. Besides spurring on the creation of a whole new branch of athletic wear — one can imagining smiling Nike and Adidas executives reading the news — this was a significant reversal.

(Source: The Muslim Times)

It was, however, still tentative, for the issue of the safety of the hijab was still to be taken up by medical specialists at FIFA. Finally, on July 5, a full — if still temporary — approval of the hijab in international women’s play was passed by FIFA, prompting much celebration in some quarters, and the immediate refusal of the principle by the French Football Federation.

There will, undoubtedly, be more twists and turns to this issue. Globally, the hijab has become a crossroads for political and religious conflict, and it should come as no surprise that this is true in football, too. Yet there is something fascinating about this struggle over the right to play football in a hijab because of the nub of contradictions at work. Though they often used the pretext of player safety, what underlies the decisions of authorities who have banned the hijab is the idea that they were simultaneously protecting women from the veil and protecting the turf from expressions of worn Islamic religious identification. Those who have insisted that women and girls be allowed to play wearing the hijab have argued that to deny them this right is an attack against their freedom and equality. For the moment, the latter argument has — at least tentatively — won the day. This means that girls and women will no longer be asked to make a choice between the hijab and playing the game they love.

In the long-running debates over the banning of veils from French public schools, a minority of critics have persistently insisted on the fundamentally contradictory nature of such regulations. If the goal is to encourage the emancipation of women from patriarchal structures, how is excluding them from school the answer? And sociologists who interviewed the girls who were wearing veils to school in the 1980s and early 1990s found that their motivations, as well as their religious convictions, were extremely diverse and more often expressions of cultural or community pride — or a mechanism to avoid unwanted attention from boys — than the result of pressure from families.

Wearing a hijab onto the football pitch is an inherently complicated act. It is difficult to argue that, in doing so, girls and women are demonstrating deep submission to patriarchal gender constructions, for in the very act of participating in an intense, competitive, and highly public athletic contest they are pushing the boundaries of such constructions. From the beginning, the worry about the implications of wearing a hijab on the pitch has come from referees, national federations, and FIFA authorities, rather than from players. Many of them — like 11-year-old Mansour in 2007 — seem to feel none of the conflict or contradictions that those supervising their play feel about the garment.

Shireen Ahmen has recently written about the experience of playing in a hijab, describing with a mix of humor and irritation the constant questions she gets about doing so. Her piece asks readers to simply understand that wearing a hijab is “how I play. How I CHOOSE to play.” To those who ask her questions on the pitch — “Isn’t it hot?” — she offers: “I am not averse to answering questions. Just not in the middle of a match. Ask me after. I am happy to provide my number, a dinner invitation and a Tariq Ramadan website.” And though she imagines “scoring 3 goals and performing in some Messi-like manner whereby achieving a great victory for all oppressed Muslim women and earning the respect and acceptance of these nimrods,” in fact — just like any player — the reality is more banal. “Some games I play well. Some games I get called for illegal slide-tackles.” Ahmen’s piece offers precisely what we need more of now: an understanding of the lives of “hijabi footballers” as she calls them, that gets us back to reality on the pitch of play — and the play of individuality and community that is ultimately what football is about.

The official debate about the hijab in football is clearly far from over. Authorities in Quebec seem committed to pushing back against FIFA’s new rules, and have curiously brought the story full circle: just days after the ruling, they banned Rayane Benatti, a 9-year-old girl, from playing in a youth match in a hijab. They explained that they would wait until the International Football Association Board determined precisely what type of hijab could be worn (a decision they will take in October) before allowing any girls to play wearing them. But France and Quebec will likely be increasingly isolated in this stance; indeed, the Montreal Gazette itself published a strong editorial attacking the regional football association’s action.

Now that the hijab has been allowed back on the pitch by FIFA, perhaps football can help to confront and unwind the simplistic debates that have surrounded the issue for too long. After all, the day may not be too long off when a player in a hijab scores the winning goal for a country — maybe even England or Germany — in the Olympics or the World Cup, producing an image of triumph and belonging that can serve to trouble the other images of women veiled that govern and shape much debate in Europe on this topic. To allow the hijab on the pitch is to allow football to do the work that it can, at its best, do so well: confusing certainties, upending easy affiliations, and reminding us that no one has a monopoly on the future.

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Jun 26 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Mario Balotelli and the New Europe

During international football competitions like the European Cup, eleven players briefly become their country, for a time, on the pitch. A nation is a difficult thing to grasp: unpalpable, mythic, flighty. Historians might labor away to define the precise contours of a country’s culture and institutions, and even sometimes attempt to delineate its soul, while political leaders try mightily (and persistently fail) to stand as representatives of its ideals. But in a way there is nothing quite so tactile, so real, as the way a team represents a nation: during their time on the pitch, they have in their hands a small sliver of the country’s destiny. And in those miraculous and memorable moments when individual trajectories intersect with a national sporting victory, sometimes biographies and histories seem briefly to meld. At such moments, the players who inhabit the crossroads of sporting and national history –Maradona in 1986, Zidane in 1998 — become icons, even saints.

This charged atmosphere can also mean that the collective of a given country’s team can also become a symbol. This was perhaps most forcefully the case in France in 1998, when the fact that the country had won it’s first World Cup with a team bewildering in it’s jovial diversity (Armenian! Algerian! Guadeloupean! Kanak!) was taken by many as signifying and symbolizing the arrival of a new France. The feeling was short-lived but powerful, indeed energizing. And it suggested one particularly powerful way through which international football competitions can speak to questions about national identity and belonging, and more specifically the place of immigration and immigrants in the nation.

Watching the 2012 European Cup competition, you can increasingly see how histories of immigration have reshaped the world of European football. For a long time, France was relatively unique in the extent to which players with roots outside of Europe played central roles on the national football squad. It’s a tradition that goes back to the early 20th century in France — in the 1930s the Senegalese player Raoul Diagne and the Moroccan Larbi Ben Barek both played on the French national team, for instance, and a string of Algerian players did as early as the 1920s and through the 1950s. Portugal, meanwhile, had the great Mozambican-born Eusebio in the 1960s. The great French generation of Michel Platini, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, included a number of players with African and Caribbean roots. By then, other countries — particularly the Netherlands, which famously included several players of Surinamese background, and England which in the late 1970s incorporated a series of black players largely of Caribbean ancestry — began fielding more diverse teams. But in other countries the process was much slower. Germany, Italy, and Spain in particular continued to field teams with few if any players of non-European background. Perhaps the most startling contrast in this regard came in 2006, when a French team in which 19 of 23 players on the squad had roots in Africa, North Africa, the Caribbean, or the Indian Ocean, in contrast to an Italian team which, with the exception of some Argentine-Italians, had no players with non-European roots.

In the past years this all begun to shift in important ways. The German team in the 2010 World Cup was heralded for it’s multi-ethnic composition — with Ghana (via Boateng), Brazil (via Cacau), Tunisia (via Khedira) and Turkey (via Ozil) all represented. If the numbers were small compared to the French team, it still represented a shift, one brought about through a conscious longer-term policy that sought to expand and diversify training and recruitment in German soccer. Similar changes are visible on other national teams. Switzerland’s team (absent from this Euro) benefited strikingly in South Africa from the contribution of Gelson Fernandes, son of Cape Verde immigrants who scored their goal in their stunning victory over Spain. At the Euros this year The Czech team showcased the talented Thedor Gebre Selassie, son of an Ethiopian doctor. And the player who truly defined Sweden’s exalting performance against France in the final group game in this year’s Euro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is the child of Croatian and Bosnian parents.

There is obviously no simple explanation for how and why certain international teams include players of immigrant background. At some level, each player’s trajectory is an individual story, one that combines talent, discipline, and luck to bring them to the highest levels of the sport. But there are also larger social and historical forces at work. These involve three inter-related processes. At the broadest level, there is of course the history of migration in each European country. While these histories are — especially in an increasingly integrated Europe — tightly connected, they are also quite diverse. Migration to some countries — most notably France and the U.K. — is shaped by their colonial histories, though both countries also have large migrant populations that are not from former colonies. In places like Belgium and Italy, migration from former colonies (particularly the Congo in the former case and Ethiopia and Somalia in the latter) is a small part of a broader tapestry of migration. And intra-European migration, particularly from Eastern to Western Europe, is also part of the story as it has long been.

But patterns of migration don’t necessary become patterns of sporting participation. For that to happen, there have to be mechanisms for the inclusion of migrants into the networks of training that professionalize young players. To understand how that happens in different countries, you need to understand the different types of professionalization — most importantly the structuring of academies or sport-training tracks in schools. That is something Lindsay Marie Krasnoff explores well in a recent piece contrasting Spanish and French academy systems. Interestingly, though, the Spanish national team remains an outlier in some ways, for there is a striking absence of players of non-European background on the team. Why is this the case? Will it change in the coming years?

In this European Cup, the most important and fascinating player of immigrant background is clearly Mario Balotelli. For the past decades, Italy’s national team has had very few black players, and none ever so prominent as Balotelli. He’s earned a place as the team’s key striker, and his presence has been at the center of polemics and debates around racism at the Euro competition. His story is as fascinating as it is complex. Born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, he had health problems as a child and ultimately was fostered with a wealthier Italian couple. Although the fostering was initially meant to be for a year, Mario ended up staying, leaving behind his Ghanaian name of Barwuah and taking on that of his foster parents, the Balotellis. At 18, he took on Italian citizenship. As the Daily Mail reported in 2010, his relationship with his biological parents became strained and distant. A brilliant player, Balotelli has found vertiginous success on the pitch, coupled with regular appearances in the newspaper for various teenage stunts, and has been recruited to play as one of his national team’s key strikers during this tournament.

Though a number of players intervened into the discussion about how to respond to racist fans during the European Cup, none was more forceful than Balotelli, who announced that he might walk off the pitch if confronted with monkey noises or other forms of racist abuse. As it happened, he was — during the Italy vs. Croatia match — as several hundred fans made monkey noises at him and one threw a rapidly-retrieved (and photographed) banana onto the pitch to taunt him.

He didn’t carry out his threat of leaving the pitch, though the fact that he had emphasized the issue probably helped pressure UEFA to take action after the match. They fined the Croatian Federation 80,000 Euros for the behavior of his fans. Of course that fine can seem rather small, especially when compared to other fines levied by the same body. As The Star reported: “The fine is €20,000 ($25,000) less than the UEFA disciplinary panel ordered Denmark forward Nicklas Bendtner to pay one day earlier for revealing a sponsor’s name on his underpants.”

During the next game, against Ireland, Balotelli scored his first goal of the competition. What happened next generated perhaps one of the most potent and fascinating moments in the tournament: as he turned to celebrate, he began to say something. But his teammates rapidly put their hands over his mouth, muffling and silencing him. The image was unsettling: a goal celebration that was also a bit of a mugging, as if the job of Balotelli’s teammates was to make sure that he scored but didn’t speak afterwards. Most commentators — like those I heard on Belgian television — commended the action, taking the line that given Balotelli’s penchant for controversial statements and behavior, they were doing the young man a favor. But what, precisely, was Balotelli trying to say? The Independent has suggested that — like Samir Nasri who, after scoring against England, had shouted “Ferme ta gueule!” at the camera, presumably responding to a recent criticism in L’Equipe about his lack of scoring — he was going to taunt the Italian journalists who had been critical of his performance in previous games. Then again, maybe he was just going to say something about how awesome he is, which he clearly enjoys doing as well. But there’s another possibility, which is that Balotelli had some words for the racist fans from the previous game who had taunted him. His teammates stifled whatever it was that was about to come out of his mouth.

Balotelli faces seeping racism at home too: in anticipation of the Italy-England match, Italy’s leading sports newspaper, La Gazetta Dello Sporto, published this cartoon, whose racial vocabulary is not that far from that of the Croatian fans.

As Elizabeth Cotignola has recently noted in a provocative piece about the specter of decline threatening Italian football, migration — and a more open approach to migrants in Italian society — may be the key to assuring the future of the sport in the country. If that is true, Balotelli may represent the beginning of a new era in Italian football.

What is striking in the lead-up to the Germany-Italy game is that, no matter which team wins the victory will be the result of a collective effort by a group that brings together diverse histories. If the Italian teams wins, there is a good chance it will be thanks to the alliance of the veteran Andrea Pirlo with Mario Balotelli. Though Balotelli failed to score in open play, he threatened England on several occasions. Pirlo, meanwhile, directed the team effectively, and topped the evening off with a cheeky and brilliant panenka during the penalty kick shoot-out. The experience of the French team in this tournament is testament, once again, to what can happen when a team of very talented players lacks a figure who centers and directs the action of the team — the way Zidane did in 2006, for instance. But with Pirlo and other experienced players behind him, Balotelli has the opportunity on Thursday to earn a place in the pantheon of Italian football.

Balotelli has now scored twice, once against Ireland and once scoring the first penalty against England. Will he do so again against Germany? And if so, what will that mean for him, and for Italy?

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Jun 08 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

What Would Thuram Do?

In 1996, after France narrowly defeating Bulgaria to move on from the group stages of the European Cup competition, the French defender Marcel Desailly made a striking accusation during a press conference. Hristo Stoichkov, the star Bulgarian striker, had racially abused him during the game. “Hey Desailly, do you know that little kids are dying of hunger in your country,” Desailly claimed Stoichkov had said to him on the pitch during one of a number of heated entanglements. And then he added: “Shitty country, shitty blacks, shitty skin.”

Desailly was born in Ghana but grew up in comfortable circumstances with his mother and a French step-father. As he writes in his autobiography, Stoichkov’s comments ultimately had an awakening effect on him, driving him to reconnect with Ghana after years of relative distance. But his public accusation against Stoichkov was itself both a courageous and relatively rare thing: this was not something black players did in the 1990s in the midst of major tournaments. And there was in fact little result: the UEFA did nothing to Stoichkov — who when confronted by Desailly after the match had refused to apologize and said “I believe what I said.” The incident was, in any case, soon overshadowed by a larger racial scandal, when far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen famously attacked his national team — which included Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Christian Karembeu, and Zinedine Zidane — of being composed of “foreign players” and “fake Frenchmen” who didn’t know the words to the Marseillaise, or else refused to sing it if they did. The comments incited a wave of criticism from the players, politicizing many of them, as well as from politicians and media figures in France. Though France didn’t win the Euros that year, the tournament ended up setting the stage for the 1998 World Cup in at least two ways: it helped solidify the team, but it also transformed it into a symbol of multi-cultural France and made supporting Les Bleus a form of anti-racism activism for many. (This is a story I tell in some detail in my book Soccer Empire).

Eighteen years later, another European Cup begins, and once again the question of race, nation, and sport are center stage. This time the story is beginning in a very different way: thanks in large part to a controversial BBC show about Ukraine and Poland called “Stadiums of Hate,” there has been wide-spread concern about the presence of racist, anti-semitic — and violent — fan groups in the countries hosting the Cup this year. Sol Campbell urged English fans to stay away from the Euro, and others have made similar warnings. In response, Polish and Ukrainian authorities have decried the BBC show as extremely partial, focusing on a marginal phenomenon, and tried to reassure everyone that there will be no problems during the tournament. But yesterday members of the Dutch team, having just returned from a visit to pay homage at Auschwitz, were greeted by monkey calls by a group of Polish fans as they practiced, prompting Van Bommel to warn that the team would leave the pitch if this happened during a game. Mario Balotelli, meanwhile, has already threatened to do the same.

Will the players do it? Many people are hoping they will. In a recent interview I did with Lilian Thuram, he insisted that if players — and all players, not just black players — banded together and refused to play as long as racism of any kind was tolerated in the stadium then the federations would very quickly act to solve the problem. But UEFA President Michel Platini has announced that if Balotelli or anyone else walks off because of racial abuse, they’ll get a yellow card. It will be up to the referees, not the players, to decide whether the situation in the stands merits and end to the game.

If we take a step back from all of this, there’s a fascinating set of historical shifts at work. It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that many European countries dreaded the arrival of English fans, who were notorious for right-wing affiliations and violent behavior. In one incident among many, during the 1998 World Cup fans of the England team, in Marseille for a game against Tunisia, rampaged through the center of town beating up people they saw as North African, as well as attacking a beach in the middle of the day and beating up families picnicking ocean-side. The problem of English “hooliganism” was in fact a pan-European obsession throughout the 1980s and 1990s — producing among perhaps it’s signal literary expression in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (a brilliant work of that is part embedded ethnography journal part journey to self-realization as thug). Monkey noises, bananas thrown on the pitch, neo-nazi symbols, brutal beatings and killings — it was all there, and it was thoroughly English in many European’s eyes. Now, some decades on, the English are leading the charge in criticizing the Ukranians and Poles for their unruly and violent fans, and it’s not surprising that some of the accused have had their hackles raised by the process.

At the same time, of course, the reality is that in England — precisely because of the magnitude of the problem — is now home to what is probably the most aggressive and committed program of action against racism in football in Europe. This year alone has seen two major cases involving racism on the pitch, and indeed what England captain John Terry has to look forward to after the Euros is being put on trial for racial harassment — which does make the English a bit of an easy target for accusations of hypocrisy. There have been arrests for racist tweets and programs through which fans can warn officials about racist chants they hear.

Of course, one way to interpret this is to insist the England still has as much of a problem with racism in football as the Ukraine and Poland do. But that would be a bit too easy: for it is true that today the kinds of anti-semitic, neo-Nazi, and racist banners and symbols that were clearly visible in stadium crowds shown on the BBC would rarely if ever be tolerated by officials in an English stadium. And in Italy, Holland, Spain and France the situation — while far from perfect — is also very different from what it was even a decade ago.

Underneath all this, of course, is a broader set of intricate tensions about Europe itself: after all, Eastern European immigration to Western Europe is a major phenomenon, and while such immigrants are not generally stigmatized quite as harshly as those from Africa and Asia, there are clearly social and cultural tensions that subtend all of this. (During one political campaign in France, just as an example, the threat of the “Polish plumber” who was to come and steal the jobs of perfectly competent “French plumbers” was bandied about). While it’s often difficult to trace the connections between such broader social phenomenon and football, they should not be disregarded as part of the current story — and one of the reasons the whole question has created so much tension, accusation, and counter-accusation.

Every international football tournament brings scrutiny to host countries — recall the extensive worried hair-rending surrounding the problem of security in South Africa (which turned out to be largely a non-issue), or simply look to the various panics surrounding whether Brazil will be “ready” for 2014. But to my knowledge — and I may well be overlooking cases here — the question of racist and anti-semitic fans as the major problem for a host is a new phenomenon. (The most dangerous thing about South African fans, it seemed, was the vuvuzela). And within Europe’s contemporary political landscape — as well as the landscape of European football — it needs to be taken seriously. The defense that racist and anti-semitic fans are a fringe group is an old one: the same was, rightly, said by those decrying the depictions of English “hooliganism” in the 1980s and 1990s. But the question of their presence, and their impact on the field of play, is as relevant as it ever has been.

What has changed since 1996? At once a lot — and too little. The intense scrutiny about racism in football is testament to the success of the actions taken by players such as Desailly, Lilian Thuram, and Thierry Henry — who responded to racial epithets directed at him by Spanish national team coach Luis Aragonès by partnering with Nike to launch an anti-racism campaign. But it’s striking how relevant the message of this campaign remains.

What players like Mario Balotelli — as well as Lilian Thuram, from a retirement he has devoted to anti-racist activism and education – are saying is that a more militant approach may be needed. After years of football federations and FIFA carrying out extensive public campaigns against racism in football, it can still emerge to haunt one of the sport’s most important international tournaments. It may turn out that all the sound and fury about this will turn out to have been misplaced. Perhaps the small groups of Ukranian and Polish fans foregrounded in “Stadiums of Hate” are truly a fringe, and they will be successfully kept out of the stadium — and away from visiting fans whose physical appearance might not please them — during the next month. Let’s hope that is the case. But if it is not, it may be politically and historically necessary for players to force the issue, as some have threatened to do. And, especially if action is taken in full solidarity — so that it is not presented as a problem facing black players, but rather as one affecting all players — it might make an important difference. Balotelli certainly loves to court controversy, but his matter-of-fact approach to the issue is refreshing. After all, in what other profession would those in charge simply tell people to deal with it if people racially harass them while they are working? Players have the right to wonder: how long do we have to wait?

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Oct 11 2011

Profile Image of Charles Guice

Why English Football Will Adopt the NFL’s Rooney Rule

PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor

Early last month, senior executives from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the League Managers’ Association, the Football Association (FA), the Football League and the Premier League met with Cyrus Mehri, an American lawyer who, along with the late Johnnie Cochran and a labor economist, Janice Madden, drafted and successfully petitioned the National Football League (NFL) to adopt the “Rooney Rule,” the requirement that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for any head-coaching vacancy. PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor, who invited Mehri to speak, favors bringing the Rooney Rule to English football to increase the number of black and minority ethnics considered for and ultimately hired as managers.

Response to the meeting was swift and varied widely. While many agree that the number of black managers and coaches is surprisingly few, there is little agreement on how to address the issue or, as some have argued, whether any disparity exists at all. What may have been lost in the debate, however, are the clues that the decision has already been made, with the remaining point of discussion only being when and how the policy will be implemented.

Named after Dan Rooney, the chairman of the committee appointed by the NFL to review potentially discriminatory hiring practices, the Rooney Rule was ratified voluntarily by the thirty-two franchise owners in 2002. Under considerable public pressure, as well as the threat of legal action by Cochran and Mehri, the owners agreed to implement the rule the following year. The impact was immediate; within nine years, nineteen blacks had been named as head coaches for American football teams, and both coaches competing in the 2007 Super Bowl were African-American.

As early as 2003, a number of former players, such as Viv Anderson, England’s first black international, John Barnes and Luther Blissett, formed a group allied with the PFA and began petitioning for more black coaches and managers. Ten years earlier, Keith Alexander had become the first black to be appointed when he hired as manager for Lincoln City FC. But five years later, when Paul Ince became the first British-born black manager of a Premier League side, he was only the third to manage a professional league club.

While there have been 33 appointments since the 1992-93 season (apportioned amongst 17 individual managers), only two blacks are currently managing, Chris Hughton at Birmingham City and Chris Powell at Charlton Athletic. And a number of observers—within the sport, the media and amongst fans—have questioned whether the lack of black managers is a direct result of institutionalised racism.

That racism was once rife in English football is indisputable; in his memoir, First Among Unequals, Anderson wrote of bananas thrown on the pitch and hearing racist slurs when he first began playing. And though often rare now—as well as illegal in the UK—BME players have been subjected to racial abuse as recently as the 2011/12 season.

In 2008, some within the game began urging that the Rooney Rule be adopted in English football. Chief amongst those were blacks who felt they had been denied opportunities to even interview for open managerial vacancies. The most recent push for parity, however, began in earnest earlier this year.

Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland, two researchers at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, published the results of a survey of 1,000 fans, professional players, referees, coaches and managers. In their study, Why aren’t there more black football managers?, Cashmore and Cleland reported that more than 50% of the respondents believed that racism existed in football’s top ranks, and fully a third supported the adoption of a “British” Rooney Rule.

And in March, during an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, Taylor publicly signaled his intent when he said:

All I can think of is that if things don’t start to improve we’ll look at a rule that demands that clubs have to at least have a good selection and include former black players—fully qualified—as coaches. Our job is to try and get them in the first place fully qualified then there’s no excuse not to interview them, and, then, to get them involved with the interview process.

Several months earlier, the FA had replaced the FA Coaches Association with the Licensed Coaches’ Club, addressing one of the common reasons Taylor cited that is often given for the lack of non-white managers—fully qualifying candidates. Developed to ensure that coaches kept their training and qualifications current, the Licensed Coaches’ Club was also established to ensure that persons interested in coaching—at any level of the game—gained the proper qualifications.

Over the summer, the FA launched a second component of its broader initiative; an equality drive aimed specifically at promoting coaching opportunities to black and minority ethnic (BME) communities. Coach, a film produced by the FA, is specific in its intent: to increase the number of black and Asian coaches in management positions, spotlighting both the professional and grass roots game.

At the film’s premiere at Wembley Stadium, FA Chairman David Bernstein commented, “the football family recognises the underrepresentation at the top level.” “Hopefully,” he went on to add, “today is the start of redressing that imbalance.” But Lord Herman Ouseley, the Chair of Kick It Out, the PFA/FA campaign established to bolster equality and inclusion in football, addressed what is likely one of the issue’s most significant factors when he said, “it’s important that football is showing to the world in this country how it can lead.”

Because absent from many of the discussions is an acknowledgement that English football has become a lucrative global enterprise. In addition to advertising, ticket sales, naming rights and merchandising, broadcasting rights—reportedly £1,4bn/US$2,17bn for the 2012/13 international rights alone—now constitute a substantial portion of revenue for the twenty premier league clubs. The Manchester United fan base, for example, extends outside of the UK to millions worldwide, and other clubs, such as Arsenal and Manchester City, are also looking to significantly expand their numbers of international supporters.

Setting aside the debate as to whether BMEs are intentionally excluded from coaching positions, the perception amongst a significant number is that they are, and multinational enterprises must strive to avoid any hint of bias and discrimination—as well as the associated adverse publicity. Correspondingly, how English football is perceived vis-à-vis its hiring practices can have a direct impact on its revenue and profit.

Additionally, while the debate has largely been shaped around the sizeable number of black players in the league, the focus of the current PFA and FA initiatives is on British-born black and minority ethnic groups. On the March 5 Live programme, Taylor remarked:

I find it astonishing that we can import the likes of Jean Tigana and Ruud Gullit and there’s no problem, but our own lads who have grown up in this country have not been given a chance to be fairly represented.

Considering that British-born BMEs only constitute 15% of the players in the top division—with a combined average of 18% in the Football League—Taylor’s statement is worth noting, particularly given the higher percentages, which are so often quoted. (The higher figure, currently 28%, represents both British and foreign-born players.) It is conceivable, then, just as their NFL counterparts concluded in 2002, that football’s governing bodies have determined that it is more prudent to formalise its hiring practices before they are legislated.

Notwithstanding the moral and societal implications, it has become an imperative that British football reflects the sports’ diversity, both on the field and in the back office. Because in what has become a £7,7bn/US$12bn entertainment industry—one that contributes substantially to the larger economy of Britain—English Football must maintain its competitiveness as “the world’s most favourite league,” as well as its appeal to an increasingly global audience. Adopting the Rooney Rule, which is neither affirmative action nor a requirement that BME candidates be hired, may simply be good business.

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May 11 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Thuram, Blanc, Zidane

Filed under France,Racism,Thuram,Zidane

With a rapidity uncharacteristic of the French state, the FFF racism scandal has already run it’s predictable course: from outrage to self-exoneration. Yesterday, the French minister of sport Chantal Jouanno announced that no laws had been broken and therefore no specific legal or administrative action needed to take place. The argument was that, while the issue of “quotas” aimed at limiting the number of players of certain backgrounds from being recruited into academies was discussed, it was never put into practice. Mediapart, of course, did point out a significant fissure in the argument: during the taped meeting at the heart of the scandal, Francois Blacquart explicitly said that the idea would be to apply quotas but never openly, to carry out such a policy but sweep it under the rug. (“We could trace, on a non-spoken basis, a sort of quota. But it must not be said. It stays as action only.”) So it is not surprising that, if there was indeed action taken in this direction – as at least one report by an academy coach who says he was “reproached” by higher ups for bringing in “too many blacks and Arabs” suggests there was — there is not much evidence of it.

The Minister did make sure both to also exonerate, and even praise, Mohamed Belkacemi, the man who taped the meeting in the hopes of spurring action internally in the FFF, concluding that he had nothing to do with the leak to the media. And Jouanno did forcefully declare that the recording of the meeting leaves “in general a very disagreeable impression, linked to unsaid suggestions that border on a skid towards racism.” («Il se dégage vraiment une impression générale très désagréable, liée à des sous-entendus très souvent à la limite de la dérive raciste»).

The immediate upshot of the scandal now seems clear: Francois Blacquart will take the fall for the incident, bearing the major portion of the blame, while Laurent Blanc, already largely exonerated, will be kept on in his position as national team coach. Indeed, in an overview of the case and a defense of it’s role in exposing the problem, Mediapart has written that Laurent Blanc seems increasingly to be a “collateral victim” in a larger context of discussion that he “couldn’t control.”

It has been fascinating and instructive to see the varying roles played by three men who played together on the 1998 World Cup team: Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc, and Zinedine Zidane. They might stand for the much touted and often mis-apprehended idea of that team as a mythological tricolor of racial toleration — “black, blanc, beur,” (the latter a common term used to describe those, like Zidane, of North African background in France).

Laurent Blanc Congratulates Lilian Thuram During France-Croatia 1998 Semi-Final

Zidane Comforts Blanc After His Expulsion in the Same Game

In 1998, Blanc was the older player, a crucial leader on the field. He joyfully kissed Barthez’ head before each match as a kind of talismanic act, and was disappointingly absent from the final game because  of a controversial red card at the end of the semi-final. Today, he is in a position of tremendous institutional power, as well as burdensome responsibility, as the coach of the French national team in a period of struggle and rebuilding. But Thuram and Zidane emerged from 1998 probably more famous than Laurent Blanc, in a sense: thanks to goals they scored in the semi-final and final respectively, they became icons, and were also seen as hopeful symbols of the successful and empowering incorporation of those who families had roots in French colonialism and post-colonial immigration into the Republic.

Many recent articles have slightly belabored the point that the “mythology” of 1998 is now clearly dead, with the three men no longer unified but split in complex ways by the recent scandal. In fact, though, the death-knell of the “black, blanc, beur” mythology was being rung by commentators within days of the 1998 World Cup victory. The more astute observers in the subsequent months, including Thuram himself, pointed out what was crucial about that moment: the team was a symbol not of what was — indeed quite the opposite — but rather a hint at what could be. If the celebrations of 1998 were so intense it was also because they were a state of exception, a glimpse of an alternative France — one that both confronted and liberated itself from the burdens of it’s colonial past — whose existence seemed fragile, evanescent, even impossible.

The roles played by Zidane and Thuram in the recent debate are very much in line with the public selves they have crafted since 1998. Zidane has been relatively restrained in his participation in public debates, though at time he has spoken out — against Le Pen’s run for president, for instance, in 2005. Though he has participated in various anti-racism campaigns within football, he has always been reticent to speak directly about racism more broadly. In his statement about his famous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final, he never suggested that Materazzi’s words were racist, although he did vaguely connect his own action to the broader issue of racism in European sport. Like other players from the 1998 team, he obviously feels loyalty to Laurent Blanc, and in his classic laconic and measured way came to his defense, stating clear that he is not a racist — “his wife is Algerian!” Zidane exclaimed —  and suggesting that he had allowed himself to be “carried away” into an “indecent” discussion. Zidane also criticized the media and those who had spoken “too fast” — and the journalist prodded him into mentioning Lilian Thuram “among others.” If you know Zidane, of course, you know that he always takes a long time before speaking up, so this is no surprise. Zidane made clear that the discussion had shocked him, but argued that it should be seen as part of a larger discussion about the qualities of players and how to form them in academies.

This kind of play of accusation and defense is par for the course when issues of racism come up in football. When Spanish coach Luis Aragones was videotaped calling Thierry Henry a racist epithet years ago, many players — including black players — rushed to his defense, and he himself used the classic defense that he has many black friends. Of course, given the salutary diversity of global football today, no coach or player can actually function professionally without working closely and successfully with people of a range of backgrounds. The real question is how and why, despite that, racialized interpretations of sport remain so powerful and attractive even to those whose long professional experience should, ideally, serve to render the meaningless and absurd.

When such drearily repetitive incidents take place, as they have and will continue to in European football, there is also a strange kind of blindness and historical amnesia that seems to set in. For a very, very long time — dating at least back until the eighteenth century — European racism has often been simultaneously articulated and denied by many actors. In fact French colonial history offers up many examples of administrators who touted and cherished their close relationships with Africans or Algerians, who wrote extensively about their culture and sometimes “went native,” marrying into local families. Many of these in fact did — like some French writers today — see themselves as more enlightened and sympathetic towards Africans than their own local  rulers, as bearers of liberation and republicanism. That never prevented them from participating in structures of power that we now easily condemn as racist and exploitative. I’m not saying Laurent Blanc is a colonial administrator, of course — though Sarkozy did famously, in a speech in Dakar, effectively repeat old colonial tropes with seemingly no self-consciousness a few years ago. What I am saying is that we should understand that discussions of racism have always been extremely complicated, and that our struggles today are partly the result of many layers, a suffocating sedimentation, of generations of interaction, conflict and intellectual work that has created the matrix of racist thought as it continues to live on today in France. It’s too easy to argue that times have changed all that radically. Both now and then, the operations of racism and exclusion are extremely complex, not an issue of individual purity or guilt, but one of structures, sensibility, language, and action all intertwined. It is a process and a story we are all embedded within, and the importance of events like the recent FFF scandal is that they illuminate those operations and allow us to identify, analyze, and ideally take action against them.

Like most of those who have defended Blanc, Zidane didn’t directly grapple with the ways in which his words strongly indicated that he was drawing a well-oiled correlation between skin color and tactical versus physical capacity among players, perhaps wanting to believe simply that Blanc didn’t really mean what he sounds like he is saying particularly about black players. But Zidane also communicates a sense that Blanc himself probably feels some sense of shame about the way in which he spoke. We probably won’t get much more out of Zidane, but hopefully Blanc may grapple more directly and forcefully with his recorded words in the coming weeks. That would be important since of all the issues brought up the most serious — to my mind at least — is the fact that despite all his experience in football Blanc nevertheless skidded into what I still consider to be “racist delirium,” in which complex issues of sport training were boiled down into a question of race. Why, we still need to wonder, was it so comfortable for him to talk about “black” players as a group, as a category, with so much ease and comfort, and so little self-consciousness? The point is even more urgent because Zidane and others are certainly right to emphasize that, in his career, Blanc has been exemplary, and can be considered someone who in general has demonstrated a much greater sense of openness and toleration than many other leaders within French society. This is, in other words, an opportunity for self-examination about the ways in which progressive and liberal sectors of that society nevertheless can find themselves caught up in the twists of racial logic, and then strangely shocked when people call them on it.

The difference in approach between Zidane and Thuram to the question is fascinatingly characteristic of their longer history as players and public figures. Zidane spoke in terms of his own emotions and those of Blanc, and in terms of individual attitudes — “Blanc is not racist” — while hinting simply that there are broader and complex issues that should not be boiled down to issues of racism. Thuram, meanwhile, was more immediate and forceful in his denunciation of the discussion at the FFF. He did so, however, by trying and highlighting the danger of certain kinds of ways of thinking, of the way reason is distorted by racial thought, and of the ways in which seemingly common sense discussions — like that of “bi-national” players — can too easily become an “alibi” for more racialized approaches. Thuram has, over the years, labored to focus on structures rather than individual motivation. His attitude towards racist fans who have directed hatred at him in stadiums, for instance, has been remarkably kind: he has repeatedly said and written that the problem is simply that they are caught up in a way of thinking, and that they haven’t had the opportunity to escape that. Since retiring from football, he has put most of his energy into trying to change that situation through the work of his foundation for anti-racist education.

Where Thuram has been intransigent over the years, and rightly I think, is with regards to racism within the French state itself. At the root of his famous public duel with Nicholas Sarkozy over the years, starting during the November 2005 banlieue riots, was Thuram’s sense that public figures and officials should always be held to a higher standard, and that their use of xenophobic or racist language is always unacceptable. Sarkozy was among those who rushed to defend Laurent Blanc, but that of course should come as no surprise: after all, Sarkozy has himself so regularly vehicled offensive messages in his speeches and policies that he puts even Francois Blacquart to shame.

Interestingly, in one of his early defining speeches as Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy lambasted a group of policemen in Toulouse for a recreation program they had funded which used sports as a way of working with and getting to know adolescent boys in the troubled neighborhoods they policed. “You are here to arrest delinquents, not play football with them,” he declared. One can, in a way, see how such attitudes — linked more broadly to cutbacks in social services in the banlieue areas that even official reports saw as part of the reason for the 2005 riots — have slowly seeped into the operations of different sectors of the French state, including now the French Football Federation.

That, in the end, is the real issue. What is most striking about all of this is precisely that someone like Laurent Blanc, who indeed has long demonstrated an openness and capacity to work with a wide range of players, and gained the friendship of loyalty of teammates and players he has coached, could nevertheless be drawn into the discussion recorded at the FFF rather than standing against it. That people who think of themselves as not at all racist can nevertheless vehicle racist messages should, unfortunately, not really be a surprise. The issue is less about the individual, in the end, than about the broader structures of thought and the contexts that facilitate them. The reason all of this is so serious is that any successful project to chip away at and ultimately undermine the hold of racism on French society has to begin with a powerful will on the part of the state to admit and address the problem. What we’ve learned instead in the past weeks — something that has been powerfully clear in other sectors of French life for years — is that those whose talk it should be to educate others themselves are seriously need of their own education about how and why racism remains a powerful poison.

As all of this has been going on, ironically, so was the dedication (presided over by Sarkozy himself) of a new and impressive monument to the memory of the slave trade. It’s the culmination of a long series of historical and political struggles that many historians (including me), have been involved in, along with Thuram himself and other football players such as Bernard Lama. That activism has overcome the resistance of Sarkozy himself, who famously attacked the politics of “repentance” during his presidential campaign. The inscription on the monument represents a profound statement of the centrality of the history of slavery, and slave resistance, to the history of the French Republic:

By their struggles and
their strong desire for dignity
and liberty, the slaves of the
French colonies contributed
to the universality of human rights
and to the ideal of liberty,
equality and fraternity that
is the foundation our republic.

France here pays them tribute.

Given that this important contribution has, until recently, received essentially no recognition at the level of the state — or in education — that step forward can give us a bit of hope that a transformed sense of what France is, and of how it’s complex past of empire shoots through it’s present struggles, will enable people to take the necessary steps towards a different kind of future.

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May 05 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois


Filed under France,Racism

The last few days have offered some new and crucial details in the story of racism at the French Football Federation. The initial reaction by those implicated, including Laurent Blanc, was to deny that they had said what Mediapart accused them of saying. But they rapidly backtracked, perhaps because they had realized that in fact the blog had access to a tape-recording of the entire meeting, from late 2010, in which the idea of the need for “quotas” aimed at limiting certain kinds of youth players was discussed. Yesterday, it came out that the person who had made the tape is Mohamed Belkacemi, an administrator at the FFF who was in charge specifically of the area of football in the “quartiers,” that is in the housing projects of the banlieue. In 2009 Belkacemi was honored for his work with under-privileged youth by the French state by being named a Knight of the National Order of Merit. Affectionately known by his colleagues as “Momo,” he was praised effusively, notably by the then head of the FFF, who described how his work had proven that football could have a “social role” and be a “marvelous” contribution to the lives of children in poorer neighborhoods.

A year later Belkacemi, embarked on another kind of heroism: that of whistle-blowing. Presumably alarmed by the tenor of previous comments in meetings, he decided to tape one of them. His goal was to bring the tape to higher ups within the FFF in order to get them to intervene. He claims he passed on the tape, but that no one did anything.

He did not, however, pursue the case, and declares he is not the one who passed on the tape to the media either. Mediapart got the tape somehow — they will not divulge through what source — and currently has a copy, which means that there is no real escape for the FFF from having to deal head-on with what was said. This is particularly embarassing for Blanc, who has denied any racist intent, but whose words about black players are particularly strong and revelatory. Naturally, officials are now trying to reverse the accusations, arguing that the leak of the tape of a private work meeting was illegal. But thanks to Belkacemi and whoever later leaked the tape, we have an archive of the way in which race and football were discussed by those who imagined no one outside would hear.

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May 01 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Was that an Apology?

Filed under France,Racism

The French Football Federation has issued a communiqué by Laurent Blanc in response to the allegations published last week by Mediapart about the existence of a plan to limit the numbers of “black and Arab” football players within the national youth system. It’s a rather strange statement. Blanc, who initially issued a blanket denial about everything attributed to him in the article, now seems to be admitting that he did participate in a discussion about the topic of players who might have the possibility of playing for other national teams, and more broadly about the issue of the style of play being developed within the youth system. Here’s a summary along with a translation of what I see as the most important parts of the communique, which is available at the FFF website.

Blanc began by saying that he was not “taking back” anything that he said earlier. And then he offered this sentence, of the kind that could really only be produced in French:  “Que certains termes employés au cours d’une réunion de travail, sur un sujet sensible et à bâtons rompus, puissent prêter à équivoque, sortis de leur contexte, je l’admets et si, pour ce qui me concerne, j’ai heurté certaines sensibilités, je m’en excuse. Mais être soupçonné de racisme ou de xénophobie, moi qui suis contre toute forme de discrimination, je ne le supporte pas”.

Here’s my attempt to translate: “I admit that some terms used during a work-related meeting, on a delicate subject and with frequent interruptions, might seem ambiguous, when taken out of their context, and if I have shocked some sensibilities, I’m sorry. But I can’t accept that I, who am against all forms of discrimination, should be suspected of racism and xenophobia.”

He then went on to denounce the Mediapart article and to insist that only someone with “bad faith” could argue that he had ever participated in a debate aimed at reducing the number of “blacks and Arabs” in training centers. Rather, his only intention was to think through the “future of French football” and therefore necessarily of engaging with the “delicate problem” of players of double nationality as well as the “modalities for the detection and selection aimed at a new project for playing the game.” Obviously, he went on, that would have an impact on the “different profiles of players,” but insisted that there was no link with “a preference or rejection of one or another nationality.” “My only concern is to have good players for a good French team,” he went on, “whether they are big or small, and whatever their place of birth or their ancestry.” That, he concluded should be easy enough for anyone to understand — except for those who “for one reason or another” were “mixing everything up” and doing “great harm,” and “not only to football.”

What should we make of this statement? What’s missing is any direct response to the most alarming aspects of his reported statements (which I wrote about in detail in yesterday’s post). Why, precisely, does the question of players who are trained in France but go on to play for other national teams bother Blanc, and the FFF, so much? After all, the Federation retains a tremendous power and hold over players. And it is very hard to see how a policy aimed at weeding out players who could potentially acquire double nationality and play on teams in North or West Africa would not effectively be a policy of racial discrimination.

As importantly, how was it that the discussion of style of play end up becoming a question about the presence of “blacks” in French football? Blanc makes no mention of perhaps the most startling quote attributed to him, that in which he described the presence of “blacks” as a “problem,” one that he claimed the Spanish didn’t have. The only relic of that discussion in his statement today is the slightly odd phrase where he declares that he’s interesting in having players “whether they are big or small,” seemingly a reference to his quoted comments about how the training centers are full of “big, strong, powerful” black players who, he seems to have suggested, needed to be replaced by more tactically astute players.

Prominent French footballing figures seem to have a knack for non-apology apologies. Zidane’s interview in the wake of his 2006 head-butt was a stellar example of this. Unfortunately, Blanc hasn’t really answered the most important question to come out of this affair: did he, and others at the FFF, interpret issues of playing style and skill, and questions about regulations surrounding service on national squads, in terms of racial distinctions and categories? The Mediapart report suggests strongly that they did. Blanc’s statement insists that they didn’t. The Football Federation’s investigation and suspension of Francoise Blacquart, the other major figure implicated in the report, indicate they are concerned about the reports, and perhaps also know that Mediapart’s articles were in fact at least partly accurate.

We’ll be lucky if we get much clarity about all this soon — or indeed ever. And yet the broader lesson here, I think, is a well-known but vital one: racism is habit forming, and when it becomes a common currency in a society and it’s official culture, it becomes extremely easy for people to deploy it in order to make sense of a confusing and concerning reality.

Speaking on Téléfoot in an interview done yesterday and aired today, meanwhile, Lilian Thuram explained how, having first read the article, he found himself “a little destabilized.” “I told myself it was false.” He called people he knew at the FFF. And he wasn’t satisfied, it seems, with their response. Although he was still waiting for “proof,” he declared: “it’s clear we are at the heart of a scandal.” He described how he felt “hurt” by the scandal: “You tell yourself that it’s a perpetual (cycle) to always cast doubt on people with regards to their colour and religion.” In the interview, he also importantly pointed out that the whole issue of double nationality is a “false problem,” because “the best players will be retained by France.” “Those who leave are those who haven’t been selected. What country to Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Yann Mvila play for?”

And then Thuram summed up the whole telling mess effectively: “When you start out with the wrong analysis, you’ll necessarily end up with bad proposals.”

In 2010, Thuram joined the council of the French Football Federation (he was the first black person to be part of the body), but quit in December apparently because he was dissatisfied with the lack of action taken against the players involved in the World Cup debacle in South Africa. It won’t surprise me if the FFF comes calling again, though, and soon. But Thuram also has a knack for knowing when someone wants to use him as a token — he famously refused an invitation by Sarkozy to become a Minister in the French government — and it will be interesting to see if he accepts such an invitation. And given that his resignation took place about the time that the conversations reported in Mediapart also apparently took place, one wonders whether Thuram actually had other reasons to leave. It’s time, of course — it has been for a long while — for the FFF to embark on some deep and profound changes. Whether they have the will, capacity, or imagination to do so is a big question, however.

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