Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blanc and black and red all over

Europe is treading clumsily where America has learned not to tread long ago.

The recent row over the possibility of quotas of non-black players in France's national football academies showed how Europeans still do not 'get' race and are prone to reflex comments of xenophobia and maybe worse.

The transcripts of a discussion last November show that a meeting between the FFF's technical director, national coach Laurent Blanc and the U20 and U21 managers show the four discussing introducing a quota of a maximum of 30% of academy places for boys with dual nationality.

The goal was to stop the federation wasting so much time and money on youngsters who end up playing for another country in the end, a reasonable aspiration. Unfortunately the waters were muddied when Blanc spoke of modifying the French youth football culture to concentrate less on size and strength, which in his words is the preserve of "les blacks", and seek "other criteria" in the 12-13 age range.

Such a shame this story came from France, a full 13 years since its multi-racial team won the World Cup, briefly uniting a fragmenting society, and in the process leaving Le Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen an ostracised buffoon for mocking the lack of players singing the belligerent words of La Marseillaise.

New France had triumphed, or so it seemed. Since then there have been serious race riots, prompted by President Nicolas Sarkozy's infamous 'racaille' comment in 2005, while in 2008 the French national anthem was drowned out by Tunisian immigrant boos at the Stade de France, provoking a soul-searching national debate into whether the French dream of making everyone a citoyen with liberté, égalité et fraternité had become in fact un cauchemar (nightmare).

The French player mutiny at the World Cup in South Africa was fomented by black members of the team, adding an unnecessary racial tone to the debate, while fueling the already widespread domestic criticism of multiculturalism, which led to the infamous ban on burkas in France this year.

Around the same time of Blanc's faux pas, an England footballer was fined £20,000 when, referring to Ghana's friendly visit, he tweeted, "Immigration has surrounded the Wembley premises! I knew it was a trap! The only way to get out safely is to wear an England shirt and paint your face w/ the St. George's flag!"

Straightforward bigotry then, except that the tweeter in question was black (Carlton Cole), which stops our (pre?)judgment in its tracks somewhat.

That is the problem with judging racial incidents - they are rarely just black and white, so to speak. Perhaps the most infamous racial incident in British football came not when the dimwitted Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades absurdly claimed in 1991 that black players were not as good in the winter as white ones and for all their flair lacked "common sense", but when former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson referred off-camera to Marcel Desailly as "what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger" after the defender had made a crucial mistake playing for Chelsea in 2004.

'Racist Ron' lost his job at once and has not been seen on British screens since, (although he does work across the Irish Sea on soccer shows), and yet a closer examination of his career left the bigot tag hanging loosely. Atkinson after all had signed several fine black players for West Brom - like Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, at a time when other high-profile clubs were conspicuously not recruiting non-whites.

He might have kept the residual colonial attitudes many of his generation did, but in practice Ron clearly valued blacks as much as white players, showing not a hint of racism until the infamous broadcast.

While many have rushed to hang Blanc as a hate-monger and the FFR as a primeval den of prejudice, once more the facts do not back up the accusation in full. Blanc has played with a multitude of ethnicity for years, captained the famous 1998 World Cup team and has been a gentleman respected by one and all.

French skipper Alou Diarra and Desailly himself leaped to Blanc's defence, although fellow French black stars Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira rounded on him, probably recognising themselves as the muscular types Blanc had hinted at the FFF ignoring in the future.

Perhaps the most contentious part of the recorded conversation was when Blanc spoke about "our culture" in reference to his frustration at players coming through the French elite academies only to play for another country. But he had a point as an employer investing time and money for no end product:

"When people wear the jersey of the [French] national team at Under-16, Under-17, Under-18, Under-19, Under-20 and A level," said Blanc, "and then they go to North African or African teams, that bothers me enormously."

It is hard to disagree with that sentiment when you have devoted so much to training somebody up only for them to jump ship to a competitor, but in the context of football this is a problem for all globalised western countries with no obvious solution under FIFA eligibility rules. In cities like London, Paris or New York, there must be millions of children with multiple passports. This fundamentally is multiculturalism, not ethnicity.

Calling someone a racist remains a practice too often abused, however necessary it is in genuine cases. A permanent marker, it remains a potent weapon in a fight, a trump card to win all arguments whatever the evidence to the contrary. People can deal with being called a fool or similar epithets, but universally shudder at the thought of being labeled a racist.

Those who swallowed the headlines and labelled Blanc as a bigot should have read the entire transcript, including his statement that he had no problem with other races and that picking eleven black men for France "suits me fine". The furor seems to centre around his generalising of "black" players as tall and strong men and use of the word "culture".

This is a messy minefield, where the slightest comment about ethnic or cultural difference can lead to branding and public humiliation, which makes any comfortable conclusion impossible. Is it simply taboo now to mention any obvious difference between races, even when it is a compliment to fact e.g. blacks sprint faster than whites?

Almost forgotten amid the hullabaloo is Blanc mentioning the Spanish had told him they had "no problems" because they had no blacks in their team, conveniently forgetting Marcos Senna was instrumental in helping them to Euro 2008. Perhaps the Spanish were referring to the French bust-up in South Africa, but what Blanc was surely implying, even though he did not say it explicitly, was that the Spanish are ahead of the world right now with a team of short, mobile ball-wizards instead of charging midfield mastodons.

The Spanish quote, if true, was surely more racist than anything Blanc said, and comes as no surprise. Italy has worse racial problems in football than France too, while Eastern Europe is in a class of its own, cerca 1950.

The Blanc row comes at a time France is struggling publicly to unite its disparate tribes under one flag, perhaps not helped by the perception of an islamophobic President ensconced in the Elysée Palace. It is not a fire that can be put out quickly.

Humans create hierarchies of class, race, accent, religion, geography, money, you name it, and discrimination springs from each attempt to divide and differentiate. Football is just another stage for these eternally bad practices but until this summer, French football had seemed a success story for ethnic harmony.

Suffice to say, Laurent Blanc should pick the best players for his team whoever they may be, as he has always done, and given some peace, he will continue to do that.

May the best men play.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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