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The political side of soccer
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 06 - 2010

Immigrants and football. Robert Harneis's book review makes the connection
It is a nice thought that if Egypt had been an imperialist country it might now be in the running to win the football World Cup in South Africa. It is a sporting tragedy that the African record-breaking Egyptian squad, currently ranked 12th in the world, and their brilliant coach Hassan Shehata will not be taking part. France on the other hand has every advantage including an imperial legacy that has taken them to two World Cup finals with one win. How far would they have gone without their players from Africa, the Caribbean and the rest of the old empire?
In a new and fascinating study Laurent Dubois, a Belgian history professor from Duke University in North Carolina, has written a book to unravel the whole question of France, the colonial legacy of football, and its relationship with its non-white players.
An expert in Haitian history, Dubois was moved to write Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France after watching the "French" star Zinedine Zidane of Algerian origins throw away the World Cup final against Italy in 2006. As a French supporter, he was stunned by what happened when Zizou head-butted the Italian defender Marco Materazzi and was sent off. That left France, who had looked to win, with 10 players against 11. They missed their captain as the vital striker for the penalty shootout. If Prof Dubois was upset, what sort of mental storm possessed the French star? When his mother was racially insulted by the notoriously offensive Italian, he reacted almost coolly, contemptuously, in a way that he must have known would cause him to be sent off, and consign to oblivion Algeria's former brutal imperial master, France, that looked set to win their second World Cup in eight years.
The scope for interpretation of this theatrical end to a dramatic final and a great footballing career is, of course, limitless. Zizou, as he is known to the French, with his magical ball skills, had become the greatest star French football had ever known. Son of Algerian working class immigrants he rose from the city suburbs of Marseille to become rich and world famous. It would be misleading to pretend that he acted entirely out of character. His early professional career was dotted with clashes of this sort, inevitable for all great attacking players faced with less talented but unscrupulous defenders.
Discussing the book with Al-Ahram Weekly Dubois said the incident had shocked him and that writing about it was a sort of therapy, but that he rapidly discovered that there was much more to the question of immigrants and football than the recent brilliant French team of 1998. "Like the American runners John Carlos and Tommy Smith, who famously raised their fists in a salute to black power as they received their medals in the 1968 Olympics, the French team simultaneously represented and challenged the nation." The new World Cup winners caused the French people to think in a new way about their immigrant-based communities. This, despite the fact that players with immigrant backgrounds had played for France since before the war.
But the uneasy mix of immigrants in French sport and immigration politics has a long history. Dubois discovered that part of the motivation for introducing sports throughout the French Empire was that as De Courbetin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, put it, it would make the colonised "more malleable". On the other hand, he wrote that a victory of the "dominated race over the dominant race" could have "dangerous implications" and might "encourage rebellion".
Jules Rimet, another Frenchman who founded the World Cup in 1930, was a bit more idealistic. He thought a sports culture would direct the world towards "peaceful protest in the stadium, where foundational violence is submitted to discipline and the rules of the game, loyal and wise, and where the benefits of victory are limited to the wild joy of winning". He must have been disappointed a few years later when WWII broke out.
Today, many of the best French players are from sub-Saharan Africa but at one time there were a number of top players from Algeria. Dubois goes into the difficulties those players faced during the Algerian struggle for independence and describes the use of football as a political weapon and the sensational boycott organised by the independence movement, the Front de Libération Nationale, FLN, just before the 1958 World Cup. In a secret coup just before the tournament, nine top players slipped quietly out of France and said they preferred to play for the new FLN Algerian team. Two star players were Mustapha Zitouni, cornerstone of the French team, and Rachid Mekloufi, doing his military service and captain of the French army team. The football mad French public was deeply shocked. France lost in the semi-finals to the eventual winners Brazil 5-2 and beat West Germany for third place. We shall never know if they could have beaten Brazil with Zitouni on the team.
Rimet's baby has grown and grown and is now the biggest sporting event in the world. It has always had a rather Eurocentric tinge. Initially things were so arranged that only one team from either Asia or Africa could compete and it is still true that it is a more difficult for African teams to qualify than their European rivals. Egypt may have to wait a while till the football world makes a tad more sense.


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