On the 12th of July 1998, France achieved the seemingly impossible by defeating tournament favorites Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final. It was a great success on a sporting level given that France had failed to even qualify for the ‘94 World Cup, but it was a much more notable feat on a cultural level. The winning ‘98 France squad would be known as the “Rainbow Team”, due to its multicultural composition. When the French press asked coach Aimet Jacquet how he engineered this great victory, he simply answered:
“On a développé un culte de la gagne” (‘We developed a cult of winning’).
The phrase went on to live in French football folklore as something of a mantra for success for the future generations. Of course the great impact from that win has been the legacy it left: a culture of unity, that set the idea of a melting pot of footballers coming together and succeeding towards a singular goal.
In recent weeks, France national team coach Laurent Blanc has come under fire for controversial statements regarding a quota system regarding players of African decent in youth academies. The scheme was proposed by the French Football Federation (FFF) in an attempt to dilute the African influence in the current French squad and make it more reflective of French society. In fact, what we see when we look at the ’98 France World Cup winning squad are the likes of Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lixarazu, and Patrick Viera, all players of African descent who have made instrumental contributions to France’s World Cup success.
So given the legacy of unity in the squad’s recent incarnations, to now turn around and blame developmental deficiencies at the national level on the presence of African players in youth academies is misguided and simply baffling. Indeed it flies in the face of all of France’s previous achievements and that is a point that cannot be understated. The argument from the FFF is that the quota would allow for more “French” players to come through the youth academies and thus increase the selection pool. They bring up the case that many of these African youth products go on to play for national teams other than France.
The whole issue is a moot one however as if these players were truly [considered] good enough they would be drafted by – and often actually choose to play for – France. In effect, promising youngsters such as Mamadou Sakho have opted to play for France as opposed to Senegal. But looking at much more established players we see that the likes of Karim Benzema (Algerian descent), Samir Nasri (Algeria), Yann M’Villa (Congo), Adil Rami (Morocco), Bacary Sagna (Senegal), and [former captain] Patrice Evra (Senegal) have all opted to play for France. So therefore the argument that resources are being wasted on youth players of African descent who ultimately decide against playing for France is simply a non-starter, as those who go on to play for the countries of their parent’s birth are just not considered good enough for a call-up in the first place.
The FFF’s quota proposal is all the more strange as they believe that the presence of players of African descent is preventing France from developing the smaller and more technical players à la Spain. The argument is that players of African descent are much more physically mature and developed at the youth levels and thus more likely be picked as they can more effectively dominate games through their size and strength. The implication is that the FFF’s proposal targets the stereotypically physical sub-Saharan players, as opposed to all players of African descent. However, what the FFF fails to recognize is that the quota would restrict players of Algerian descent such as Nasri or Hatem Ben Arfa from breaking into the squad – exactly those types of smaller and more technical players that the FFF claim are being edged out by the more physically robust Africans.
The whole issue has triggered a real polemic in France and rightfully so. People like Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu have come out to criticize the FFF and Laurent Blanc while the likes of Didier Deschamps and Christophe Dugarry have leapt at his defense. This isn’t the first time a footballing controversy has led to a schism within the national squad – and indeed, French society. We saw a similar spillover effect last summer when, in the aftermath of World Cup fallout, the French sport minister criticized the very presence of players of African descent for bullying some members of the squad.
The point is that as much as the FFF is attempting to dilute the presence of players of African descent in the France squad, such a step would very much go against the reality of French society. Indeed the cultural geography of France is largely shaped by its colonial history, and the reality is that the nation is a melting pot of many ethnicities, the majority of which are from Africa. So the triumph of the ’98 World Cup was very much the triumph of French society. Furthermore the FFF quota proposal flies in the face of French Football tradition. One of the great pillars of French Football in the 1990s was [Olympique de Marseille Belgium coach] Raymond Goethals’ “Garde Noire” (Black Guard) of Basile Boli, Marcel Desailly, and Jocelyn Angloma who all formed the nucleus of France’s defense during those years. Furthermore some of France’s greatest icons, and indeed its greatest no.10’s, have all been the sons of immigrants: Raymond Kopa (Polish descent), Michel Platini (Italian descent), and Zinedine Zidane (Algerian descent). Therefore the FFF’s quota proposal seems very much contradictory to not only French football’s tradition but the reality of French society itself, where the last two ideals of France’s national motto “Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood) are being sadly betrayed.
By Ogo Sylla.
You can follow Ogo on Twitter @RossonerOgo_333.