In the wake of its 1998 World Cup win, France’s victorious national soccer team was a source of French pride beyond its success in bagging the country’s first world crown. It was also celebrated for its black, blanc, beur make-up: the mix of black, white, and ethnic Arab stars who in the space of a month gelled as a peerless footballing group, and helped calm French fears that the struggle to integrate generations of immigrants and their children had broken down, leaving society divided into mutually hostile, dysfunctional, and seemingly incompatible camps. As a result, Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly, Liliane Thuram, and scores of other black, Arab, and white players who followed them became as symbolic of the French nation—and the self-esteem it projects abroad—as the rooster they wore on their jerseys as the country’s mascot.
That reassuring picture of rediscovered racial harmony les Bleus offered France has undermined over time by terrible performances, repeated controversies, and even raging scandals. All that appeared to climax with last year’s nightmarish melt-down (and temporary strike by players) at South Africa’s World Cup. But now things are even worse, with French soccer’s reputation as an assembler of people across all racial, social, and economic lines attracting scorn and mockery as investigators look into claims the sport’s national ruling body sought to set quotas restricting the number of minority players in its youth programs.The storm broke April 28 when the investigative website Mediapart published a story reporting French Football Federation (FFF) officials discussed plans to limit the number of minorities selected for the national youth training program during their Nov. 8, 2010 meeting. The thrust of the proposal was to restrict black and ethnic Arab players to 30% of the total recruited to the FFF’s youth development system. The discriminatory move purportedly had two objectives. First, it was argued, reducing the number of minorities would allow a change in “the style of play” of French national sides—one away from an emphasis on tall, powerful, and fast players towards a preference for those with better ball technique and strategic minds. Put together, critics claim, that rational reflects racist stereotypes casting black and Arabs as bigger, stronger, and faster than more disciplined, cerebral, and team-oriented white players.
Just as bad, the quota was said to address the growing frustration of FFF officials over dual-national players it produces through its youth programs, but who often decide to play for foreign nations (primarily in Africa) in which they also hold citizenship. Younger bi-national prospects can play for either nation’s youth teams, but must make a final choice which country to represent when they turn 21 and qualify for elite squads. Young players already confirmed as rising stars typically usually opt for the higher-profile and more competitive France—as did the Ghana-born Desailly, Senegal native Patrick Viera, and Congo-born Claude Makelele. But late-bloomers like Chelsea star Didier Drogba—or less gifted players who doubt they’ll ever be selected to represent France—typically embrace their “other country” as a Plan B. That’s a choice hundreds of dual-national players trained to the elite level by France have made over the years, as have many others in a similar situation in other European countries.
Reducing space for dual-nations, it was argued, would reserve time, resources, and money spent for players who’d compete as adults for France–or not at all. Though the FFF and current France head coach (and 1998 World Cup member) Laurent Blanc denied any such scheme had been discussed, transcripts Mediapart published indicated key officials responsible for youth programs approved of it. One of those, National Technical Director François Blaquart, has been suspended from his post awaiting the outcome of two separate investigations into the claims. But on April 30, shortly after Blanc rejected Mediapart’s report as “a lie”, Blaquart appeared to justify the informal quota proposed to the AFP, even as he said the plan had been scrapped.
“We have 45 percent of players in our national squads who have a possibility of leaving us,” Blaquart said, referring to French youth team. “We think that’s a lot. We want to reduce that. We envisaged limiting this…but as soon as it stopped being a good solution, we abandoned it.”
Investigators heard three FFF officials involved Tuesday—including Blaquart—and will question Blanc later this week. It’s now expected they’ll also interview Mohammed Belkacemi, an FFF member who oversees youth programs in France’s disenfranchised housing projects. Belkcemi reportedly leaked the contents of the Nov. 8 meeting after being shocked at the quotas discussed—and getting no action from FFF executives he complained to. Both the FFF and government officials say they’ll be ruthless with anyone found to have proposed or applied a system of discrimination within France’s soccer program.
Rising attitudes of xenophobia–and extreme-right-leaning positions taken by President Nicolas Sarkozy that critics say stigmatizes immigrants and minorities–make the soccer scandal represents only another accusation of less inhibited racism in France. But in this case, the FFF may have no option to being exemplary in remedying the situation. The controversy sparked by the allegations has prompted calls from all quarters for any officials who were privy of the purported scheme to be immediately fired. Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno went farther, saying if proof of Mediapart’s claims is established, “I’ll call in the public prosecutor so he can decide, if necessary, whether penal action must be envisaged”.
There are also voices advising calm—including some of Blanc’s former 1998 team mates. Some assure the current coach has never shown any sign of racism, and is too fierce a competitor to stand by and lose potential star players to a discriminatory quota scheme. Others aren’t so sure. Since winning the 1998 Cup and 2000 European title for France, Lilian Thuram has become an active member in France and abroad battling racism and discrimination, and policing French methods of integration. His bone fides in that work are as impressive as his footballing trophies—which makes his doubts troubling about whether his former team mate Blanc may not have started playing by different rules once he became a part of the FFF’s team and strategic thinking.
“The problem isn’t knowing if Laurent Blanc is racist or not, it’s whether it’s possible or not to favor the discrimination of 12 year-old kids,” Thuram told the daily le Parisien. “I think the error he made was in denying (the charges). In my view, it doesn’t reflect the gravity of what’s going on.”