French Soccer and Empire’s Legacy

UC Press Podcast with Laurent Dubois:  

France lost to South Africa on Tuesday, in the last game of the 2010 World Cup for “Les Bleus”. Their exit from the tournament followed a volatile weekend during which player Nicolas Anelka was quoted in the news insulting the team’s coach, and was dismissed from the team after refusing to apologize. In protest, his teammates boycotted practice on Sunday, sparking a media frenzy.

To understand this incident requires some context, writes Laurent Dubois, author of Soccer Empire, in this blog post. He reveals how the players’ actions, and the response from the French public and the media, mirror the deep political tensions smoldering in France. (The first section of the post is below—read the rest here). For more, see Dubois’ interviews on French TV station France24 and the BBC World Service.

Excerpt from Laurent Dubois’s blog, Soccer Politics, 6/21/10:

Laurent Dubois

France vs. South Africa, Then and Now

“In 1998, as the French team prepared to play their first World Cup match, they heard singing from the opposing team’s locker room. The Bafana Bafana — in their first World Cup appearance after the end of apartheid, fielding an integrated team — were gearing up to play with song, and as the two team’s marched down the tunnel out onto the pitch, they continued singing, sending echoes through the halls. For Lilian Thuram, born in Guadeloupe, and Marcel Desailly, born in Ghana, it was a deeply moving moment. “Everything was clashing” in Thuram’s mind before the game, he later recounted in his autobiography as he thought of his “far-away origins, of slavery, of the slave trade.” “I’m with the French team,” he thought, “but I could just as well have found myself at that instant in the other locker room.” “It gave me goose-bumps,” Marcel Desailly wrote of the game. “I forgot football, and thought of Mandela.”

France defeated South Africa that day, at the beginning of a run that ultimately brought them the World Cup. Tomorrow, as France and South Africa face off again twelve years later, the contrast couldn’t be starker. Desailly is gone, Thuram too — how we miss him! — and the French team is in disarray, in the midst of an explosive scandal that has all tongues wagging in France and beyond. But one thing remains the same: the French team is today, as it has been since at least 1996, perhaps the most important site through which the nation exposes, expresses, and debates issues of race, belonging, and the legacies of empire….”

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As Dubois describes in this UC Press podcast, things looked quite different for Les Bleus in 1998, when Zinedine Zidane led the team to World Cup victory on French soil. Beyond a spectacular soccer win, says Dubois, it was a victory for a team whose players came from many different backgrounds, a “a kind of transcultural republic on the field”, he writes in Soccer Empire. It was a symbol of an emerging France characterized by tolerance and diversity, and Zidane, whose parents immigrated to France from Algeria, became the face of this hoped-for future.

Eight years later, in the last minutes of the 2006 World Cup, Zidane head-butted an Italian opponent and was kicked out of the game. Italy went on to win the game, and the World Cup trophy. Just as France’s 1998 victory was about more than soccer, its defeat in 2006 was more than a loss, and the incident reverberated far beyond the soccer field.

Through Zidane’s story and the story of his teammate Lilian Thuram, Dubois shows how in France, traces of empire are still present on the world stage of soccer. In this podcast, he reflects on what inspired him to explore the connection between soccer and politics, and to write his book Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France.

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