Magazine article The Spectator

The Lesson of France's Black Football Players

Magazine article The Spectator

The Lesson of France's Black Football Players

Article excerpt

For all that was made of the 'diversity' of the French World Cup side, what was truly striking about the team that took to the field to face Italy in Berlin's Olympic Stadium was its very lack of diversity. For all but three of the players who thundered on to the pitch to do battle with the Italians were black Frenchmen.

Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, the Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines of the beautiful game (along with its now disgraced Algerian maestro, Zinedine Zidane), fought the good fight for France in a contest that ultimately favoured Italy -- and that says as much about the changing face of modern Europe as it does about the game of football. For what we saw on the pitch on 9 July was a French side which showcased the true global ideal of integration, not so much through its representation of that ideal, as through its very subversion of it.

The setting couldn't have been more dramatic -- or poignant. Berlin's Olympischer Platz once reverberated to the Sieg heils of the Third Reich and, as the venue in which Nazi Germany staged the 1936 Olympics, was the place in which an important piece of political history was made when the black American sprinter Jesse Owens exploded the myth of Aryan genetic superiority with his four gold-medal-winning performance before an annoyed Adolf Hitler. Hitler despised black men as much as he did French men, and nothing stuck in his craw quite like the post-first world war decision to station African troops in the demilitarised Rhineland as part of the French entente occupation of the territory mandated by the Treaty of Versailles. Even more intolerable for ol' Schickelgruber must have been the mulatto offspring that sprouted so abundantly from contacts between those same troops and local German women. Thus nothing could have been more fitting -- and telling of how much time has passed -- than what transpired in that same historic venue on 9 July 2006.

Black Frenchmen, it seems to me, have always appeared more comfortable draping themselves in the Tricolor and bellowing 'La Marseillaise' than black Englishmen have been with the Union Jack and 'God Save the Queen'. This may be down to what these anthems and ensigns signify to their respective peoples. 'La Marseillaise' is an anthem that manages to be both fiercely nationalistic yet 'global', whereas 'God Save The Queen' has never quite convinced its erstwhile colonial subjects that it embraced them in its stanzas. It is an introspective, somewhat parochial song whereas 'La Marseillaise' once provided the tune to which the anthem of the international revolutionary movement, 'The Internationale', was set. It is a song of the world while still being powerfully and uncompromisingly French, whereas the British national anthem has never been anything more than the national paean of an island off the western shores of Europe. This is an important distinction that explains the relationship which black people on either side of the English Channel have with their adoptive homelands and points the way forward to a truly inclusive, yet singular and 'national', planetary civilisation.

The sheer unselfconsciousness and spontaneity of the ethnic composition of the French side represents a rebuke to the coercive, though well-intentioned, efforts at imposing integration and diversity in a vain attempt to produce authentically 'multicultural' societies. …

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