By Sarah Jawad
Oh Laurent Blanc. He’s had a difficult year with the French national football team, painstakingly trying to repair the damage wrought by the 2012 World Cup. The team going on strike and exiting in disgrace is a far cry from the national heroes who lifted the cup in 1998, headed by one of the greatest players in history. Yet the ethnicity of the prolific Zinedine Zidane appears to have become a distant memory for Mr Blanc. Lest he forgets, France’s greatest player of all time was an Arab.
I’ve always been quite a fan of the man. But having done rather well post South Africa given the circumstances, the future of France’s national team coach now hangs in the balance following the leak of a secret tape, made of a meeting last November, where he and other federation officials are heard discussing a plan to cap the number of black and Arab hopefuls at sports academiesto 30%. These sports academies produce players that feed into the National team. Although at first denying this, Laurent Blanc has now admitted certain remarks were made which had been taken ‘out of context.’ Out of context indeed. Anything to dissociate it with the ‘r’ word, the greatest enemy of political correctness. After all, France…racist? Never.
Blanc’s comments have come as something of a surprise to me, considering he himself played in that immortal ’98 world cup tournament. Alongside Desailly, Thuram, Karembou, Vieira, Henry, Zidane…all players of African descent. Yet all are unfailingly loyal to France. Blanc however has insisted his comments are not racist. Sarkozy has of course jumped to the defence of Laurent Blanc, stating that he does not want him to leave the job. But of course, Sarkozy would. With the ruling party’s policies creeping further and further to the right, Blanc’s comments were probably right in line with the French President’s actual views. In fact, they were probably the toned down version.
Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal were at one point more or less the French national team, has also spoken out in defence of Blanc, albeit admitting the conversation should not have taken place. And yet, therein lies the problem with France. They are never ‘racist.’ Or rather, they never see themselves as such.
The portrayal is that of a secular France that strives for equality. This inspite of banning religious headgear in schools in the name of equality and fostering blatant racism amongst football fans, in the name of free speech. France is home to Western Europe’s largest population of Muslims, and yet it Muslims are viewed with subtle distaste.
Although racism in football is a long standing problem in several countries on the continent, including Spain, Germany and Eastern Europe, it is especially sad to hear these comments considering (and yes I know I keep going on about it, but it really was an epic football match) the victory of 1998 was also so universally lauded due to its multicultural team helping to harmonise a nation sometimes torn by racial differences. The French football team was hailed as a shining example of true, peaceful multi-ethnicity, amidst a country – like ours – entirely confused by such concepts as multiculturalism. And yet in the last 12 years, this seems to be more and more rejected by the fans. I am reminded of the French League’s anti-racism initiative in 2005 when one team wore white jerseys and the other wore black, only to have it backfire as racist elements gathered in the notorious Kop of Boulogne (a stand in the Parc des Princes associated with racist, far-right supporters) and began chanting ‘Come on the whites’, accompanied by monkey chants when the black-jersey players touched the ball.
Amongst all this, it is difficult to ignore that many of France’s best, those players gifted with the kind of raw, unabashed talent that only rarely manifests itself, haven’t even been French ‘pure bloods.’ Take the most recent example – Samir Nasri, potentially France’s brightest young talent at the moment, is of North African descent. The point is, however, that it really shouldn’t matter. Zinedine Zidane could have been Arab, or French White. He could have been pink, green, or blue for all the fans cared when he established himself as a football legend. I ask Laurent Blanc and his fellow coaches, would you put a cap on hair colour? No.,because it’s ludicrous. So don’t put a cap on skin colour. Otherwise, alongside confirming stereotypes of the French and the ‘r’ word, the only thing you’ll face any real danger of capping, is talent.
Sarah Jawad is a medical student at King’s College London.
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