In 1998, as the French team prepared to play their first World Cup match, they heard singing from the opposing team’s locker room. The Bafana Bafana — in their first World Cup appearance after the end of apartheid, fielding an integrated team — were gearing up to play with song, and as the two team’s marched down the tunnel out onto the pitch, they continued singing, sending echoes through the halls. For Lilian Thuram, born in Guadeloupe, and Marcel Desailly, born in Ghana, it was a deeply moving moment. “Everything was clashing” in Thuram’s mind before the game, he later recounted in his autobiography as he thought of his “far-away origins, of slavery, of the slave trade.” “I’m with the French team,” he thought, “but I could just as well have found myself at that instant in the other locker room.” “It gave me goose-bumps,” Marcel Desailly wrote of the game. “I forgot football, and thought of Mandela.”
France defeated South Africa that day, at the beginning of a run that ultimately brought them the World Cup. Tomorrow, as France and South Africa face off again twelve years later, the contrast couldn’t be starker. Desailly is gone, Thuram too — how we miss him! — and the French team is in disarray, in the midst of an explosive scandal that has all tongues wagging in France and beyond. But one thing remains the same: the French team is today, as it has been since at least 1996, perhaps the most important site through which the nation exposes, expresses, and debates issues of race, belonging, and the legacies of empire.
To understand what is happening with the French team today, you have to understand both the longer history and the recent catalyst for the scandal. The longer history is that Domenech has been, essentially since he took up his job, heavily criticized and rather disliked (to put it gently) by many players. There were many rumors of conflict between Zidane and Domenech in 2006, though they were ultimately overshadowed by the victories and then stunning conclusion of that year’s tournament. One common explanation of why the team did so well in 2006 is simply that Zidane actually coached the team, with strong support from Makelele and Thuram. Indeed, when Thuram visited Duke last fall and students asked him about Domenech, he was circumspect as always, but did say that when you get the World Cup you really don’t play for the coach anymore as much as for your teammates. Of course, to do that, you have to be given the chance to get into a rhythm with your teammates, too, something the 2006 team did, interestingly, during a long-awaited journey to Martinique to play a friendly match against Costa Rica.
During France’s disastrous showing at Euro 2008, the dissension was once again clear. And that’s when things really began taking a curious turn. In any normal universe, a coach who completely flubbed a major international tournament would be replaced. But Domenech was kept. And he was kept through the difficult qualifying period of the French team. The brief player’s strike on Sunday, in fact, was a long-time coming, the result of accumulated grievances, an expression of frustration at having been stuck in an absurd and increasingly unlivable situation. Obviously the players have played their role in the difficulties of the French team. But no one, it seems, can really explain why the F.F.F. kept Domenech, against the wishes of players, journalists, seemingly everyone. Lots of people have been hurling insults against Domenech while watching their TVs and reading their newspapers for some time. Anelka’s crime was to say them to his face.
But the real catalyst for the latest madness was really not so much Anelka’s outburst against Domenech during the Uruguay-Mexico game. The explosion really began because L’Equipe, France’s major sports newspaper, heard about the comments (from what Evra described as a “traitor” within the ranks) and decided to print them not in an article, but as it’s front page headline. It was, most certainly, a low point for a paper that has had plenty of them over the years. (They pummeled Aime Jacquet mercilessly in 1998, for instance — until his team won — and the normally mild-mannered coach took delight in rubbing it in their faces, calling them and other journalists “thugs.”) It was also great business for the newspaper: they sold many more papers than they usually do.
Anelka, who refused to apologize for the comments, was expelled from the team. That is what drove Evra and his teammates, in a gesture of solidarity with Anelka, to refuse to practice on Sunday. In doing so, they were being deeply French, participating in a venerable, long-standing, and much cherished tradition of work-place resistance.
That, however, is not how most French commentators took it. Instead, after having lambasted Domenech for years, many talking heads and politicians in France suddenly found much more convenient scapegoats: the foul-mouthed, overpaid, ungrateful players on the team. French television wheeled out Alain Finkelkraut, the dependable purveyor of chic, intellectual racism in France, who made headlines in 2006 when he declared that the French team was “black-black-black” and that all of Europe laughed at France because of this. The far-right immediately offered it’s interpretation: players like Anelka, who grew up in the projects of France’s suburbs, were ungovernable, irascible, dangerous, just like the other young men from those neighborhoods. And on the commentary pages and chat rooms of many newspapers, there was so much racist vitriol, seemingly just waiting for the opportunity to spew forth, that at least one paper actually shut down its commentary section, which had become ungovernable itself. The terms thrown at the players — “hooligans,” “spoiled children,” etc. — out in the open were shadowed by much worse on the web. There were interesting echoes here of the diverse responses to Zidane’s 2006 headbutt as well. Indeed, there is much to be learned by comparing reactions to the two events. It has all, however, gotten completely out of hand, as one embittered commentator (whose words are translated here by Jennifer Doyle), has noted.
The easy, much repeated line right now is that, with all the money they get, the players should simply do what they are told. These guys are millionaires, right? So shut up and play. But are we seriously to accept that there are no conditions in which athletes might talk back, and act against those who control them? It’s not as if Domenech was a great, even a decent coach: he has clearly driven this team into the ground. Was Evra’s mobilization of his team in defense of one of their own truly a crime, an absurdity, sheer idiocy as Domenech described it? Or maybe just an attempt to salvage something, anything — a shred of solidarity — in the midst of the breakdown?
There was anger among the players, expressed clearly by Evra, at the fact that words spoken in the locker room — shocking as a front-page headline, certainly, but also probably not all that uncommon in the locker rooms of losing teams at half-time the world over — had become public. Zidane made this point in defense of the players, suggesting that while Anelka should not have said what he did, it should have been kept among the players and coach. Indeed, the FFF and Domenech could easily have chosen a different path: they could have admitted that Anelka, frustrated, sounded off, but accepted that this sometimes happens and perhaps found another way to deal with it than expelling him from the team. The bigger issue here is that there seems to be a demand that players not think too hard or speak out. But if the players were frustrated, I think, it is not because they are spoiled or don’t love the team, but rather precisely because they were frustrated and devastated by what was happening to it. Indeed, for Evra and the other players to put themselves on the line in an organized gesture as they did to me signals precisely the opposite of what many critics suggested it did. If they really didn’t care, they could simply have retreated into themselves, played badly, and gone home quietly. Open rebellion of the kind the team demonstrated is always costly to players, even those as comfortable as these are. While we can certainly debate the tactics and timing of what the players did, we should see that their action was out in the hopes that an alternative was possible that would be better for the team, and therefore for France’s fortunes in the World Cup.
But what has just happened in France is a classic operation on the part of the media and the political class. Focusing on Anelka’s angry words and Evra’s gesture, they have found a convenient scapegoat — not to mention a great way to sell papers and set up another round of often insane chatter on the television. For too many, Anelka and Evra have been made to embody what is wrong with French football, rather than the serious problems at the core of the F.F.F. that has allowed the situation to decline to this level. The institutions are spared, the players take the fall. The far-right, of course, is happy to play up the idea that it’s the players who are the problem, for the players on the French football team for a long time provided a potent symbolic alternative, one in which diversity and complexity could be celebrated as French virtues rather than as dangers. The squad, in fact, has long been about the only national institution in which there were a number of prominent, even at times powerful, individuals who had grown up in the French banlieue.
Though obviously the football team, and it’s crisis, has it’s own dynamic, there is a startling parallel with the way French political leaders have, in the past years, dealt with the major political and social crises that threaten to tear it apart. Having created a massive impasse in which large numbers of French citizens feel insulted, marginalized, and discriminated against, France’s political class has sought to exonerate itself by creating it’s demons. They’ve tried, and in some ways succeeded, in convincing many people that the real problem is women in burkas, or fifteen-year-olds who write graffiti. It is, of course, a horrifying easy political game to play, and it largely works. At the same time, of course, it’s really a rear-guard action: France has already changed, and France will continue to change, with it’s colonial history and its post-colonial realities an inescapable part of its future.
What will happen tomorrow on the pitch? Last week, reeling from the France-Mexico game, I imagined the French team going on strike in order to help South Africa move on. I had no idea that they would, in a way, go on strike this past Sunday. Now Domenech has intimated that some players may not want to play tomorrow, suggesting some may still be on strike. There are, of course, precedents for this: in 1968, professional footballers joined students and workers in a strike. And ten years earlier, Algerian footballers in France went on a different kind of strike, withdrawing from their professional teams and the French international team to play for Algeria instead. This weeks events, of course, have been of much less weight, and import, than these earlier incidents. But that is no reason to ignore that the actions of Anelka and Evra are still political in some sense, and that the furor surrounding them is just more proof of the strange impasse France has created for itself.
I don’t even know what to hope for tomorrow. A beleaguered but still somehow very annoying Domenech today suggested that the French team had to try and redeem itself for its unforgivable actions on Sunday by playing well. That’s a nice idea. But I think we are beyond that now. The French team has been a pioneer in many ways over the years, and now they have created a new precedent: a player’s strike at the World Cup. In the midst of it, let’s do ourselves and them the favor of thinking about this the hard way rather than the easy one.