Racist Delirium: A Close Reading

By | April 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About Laurent Dubois

I am Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. I founded the Soccer Politics blog in 2009 as part of a course on "World Cup and World Politics" taught at Duke University. I'm currently teaching the course under the title "Soccer Politics" here at Duke. My books include Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press, 2010) and The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer (Basic Books, 2018)

4 thoughts on “Racist Delirium: A Close Reading

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  3. Laurent Dubois Post author

    Thanks for your comments on Spain, and for the correction! What’s striking, in light of your comments, is the way in which countries like Spain and Germany are now doing what France could once be celebrated for — cultivating a diverse squad — while the French Football Federation seems oddly committed to going backwards.

  4. Degane

    Great article. Thank you for shedding light on on this truly disturbing story and as you said earlier not too surprising unfortunately. I have a small correction: the Brazilian born Spanish player is Marcos Senna and not Carlos Senna.
    Also, Laurent Blanc’s remarks about the Spanish national team are ridiculous. To make a long comment short, one just has to take a look at Spain’s U21 team to see players with duel nationalities choosing to play for Spain, two examples are Thiago Alcantara and Emilio Nsue (who are also black), and of course Bojan Krkic, to see that Spain like any other national side has players that may choose to play for Spain or somewhere else. So contrary to what Laurent Blanc claims, Spain are not eradicating “the problem” but have players coming through the youth squads with diverse origins (yet, it’s true not as “many” as France, but that’s is also due to a different colonial history). The connotation that black players lack tactical or football intelligence is sickening yet it is a belief that is still prevalent in discussions of football players throughout Europe. Black players are often lauded for their ball skills or athleticism but not for their “playmaker” abilities (except for maybe Seedorf).


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