As the French football team is currently competing in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it seems appropriate to focus on football in the first post on my new research blog. I speak as both an academic and a football fan here. I grew up with a real passion for football and have more recently co-edited two special editions of journals that have examined the topics of sport, media and national identity in a French and Francophone context.
This week, I was interviewed about these topics on BBC Wales after France-born Cameroon international Benoit Assou-Ekotto claimed that he had never had any interest in playing for France because black and Muslim players are the ones blamed when the team has a bad result.
In purely sporting terms, one might well ask if Benoit Assou-Ekotto would actually have been selected for the French national team if he had not decided to represent Cameroon due to it being the country of his father’s birth. Assou-Ekotto is a left-back and France are currently well-served in this position. Their World Cup squad includes Patrice Evra of Manchester United and Lucas Digne of Paris Saint-Germain; Manchester City’s Gael Clichy wasn’t even included in the group of 23 players selected by national coach Didier Deschamps.
However, does Benoit Assou-Ekotto have a valid point about attitudes to the French national football team? Although the diversity of the French national team was celebrated by politicians and political figures when Les Bleus won the World Cup in 1998, a very different picture emerged in 2010. After poor results on the pitch and perceived bad behaviour off the pitch, Minister for Sport and Health Roselyne Bachelot criticized players who she said behaved like ‘neighbourhood gang leaders’. A fellow member of the centre-right UMP branded the players racailles, a term with similar connotations to English words such as scum or chavs.
Although these comments did not explicitly focus on race, they provided one of many examples of politicians and public figures in France seeking to blame footballing failures on the presence of players who grew up in areas known as banlieues (often run-down suburbs). Many banlieues are characterized by having an above average percentage of residents who are immigrants (or descended from immigrants) and/or members of ethnic minorities.
As has been mentioned by US-based academic Laurent Dubois, the French Football Federation was itself at the centre of a scandal involving allegations of racism in 2011. The investigative website MEDIAPART obtained a tape of a meeting where senior figures in the federation appeared to discuss the possibility of limiting the numbers of black and Arab players at national training academies. Despite the controversy, the vast majority of those recorded escaped any form of punishment.
The discussion of potentially introducing quotas was in part a reaction to the fact that some players who attend national training academies in France end up representing countries other than France. Indeed, Dubois earlier this year argued in an article in the journal Contemporary French Civilization that there were effectively two French teams at the 2010 World Cup due to the presence of both France and also an Algerian squad featuring many French-born players.
As Dubois pointed out, many French-born players who represent other countries may not have been likely to have been considered good enough to represent France in the first place. Assou-Ekotto was once reportedly told that he could have a role to play in the French under-16 team while a youth team player at French team Lens. However, there are many players who earn youth team caps but do not go on to establish themselves as members of the full national side when they are older.
On the eve of the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, I wrote an article on the website French Football Weekly in which I discussed the misbehaviour of attacker Nicolas Anelka and the subsequent strike of his team mates at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I argued that this situation meant that France were then under pressure to create more positive headlines, a quest which by hampered by Samir Nasri swearing at a journalist after France’s quarter-final elimination by Spain.
With the far right Front National having gained more French MEPs than any other party in this year’s European elections, it may be that their leader Marine Le Pen will jump on the bandwagon and criticize the national football team if they fail or misbehave in Brazil. Her father, the former Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, has previously courted controversy by accusing black players of not singing the Marseillaise before France matches and suggesting that he couldn’t identify with a team composed of so many players from immigrant and ethnic minority backgrounds.
As fate would have it, a problem with the stadium public address system in Porto Alegre meant that the Marseillaise was not played before France’s opening World Cup match against Honduras last Sunday. The 3-0 win may temporarily have silenced those who criticized Les Bleus after a first leg play-off defeat against Ukraine last autumn threatened their chances of even making it to Brazil. However, there are bigger challenges ahead for Didier Deschamps’ team both in Brazil and potentially also back home in France if their performances and behaviour do not reach the standards required to compensate for what happened in South Africa in 2010.