World Football: Quotas, France's Troubled Search for National Football Identity

Egmont SchoendorfContributor IIMay 12, 2011

Laurent Blanc Feels the Heat after Controversial Remarks are Leaked
Laurent Blanc Feels the Heat after Controversial Remarks are LeakedAlex Livesey/Getty Images

"Clumsiness or Racism?"

That is the question that leaves many observers scratching their heads as the French Football Federation presents a new sequel to the entertaining—yet also troubling—drama one could be inclined to comically call: "How we are attempting to win a World Cup by nailing our shoes firmly to the ground before we jump."

After delivering a spectacular performance at the 2010 edition of FIFA's most prestigious tournament in South Africa—especially off the field—France and its honorable Football Federation are again showing signs of post-traumatic disorder, a serious and obviously lingering condition that many friends of Les Bleus had hoped would slowly fade in the wake of Laurent Blanc's appointment as leader of the Equipe Tricolore. 

Called upon to save French Football after the Debâcle of not winning a game in the group stage of the tournament—in hindsight hardly a reason to despair, seeing the quality of the opponents—and swept forward by a wave of public outrage at a French National team which then proceeded to self-destruct before the World's unbelieving eyes, the former captain is finding it even more difficult to restore calm and confidence to the flagship selection of the FFF than he probably had imagined.

He is now learning that the place between contradicting interests in an emotionally heated environment is usually a particularly hard one.

As reported by the International Herald Tribune and other news media, the "selectionneur" seems to have participated last November in a planning meeting with the director of French youth soccer, Francois Blaquart, and the assembled U-21 and U-20 ("Espoirs") coaches, to address the concerns and the future of France's loudly heralded Youth Football Academy system.

After much competent and exhaustive deliberation, the group apparently proposed the introduction of a quota, restricting the admission of young and promising players of foreign or dual-national background to 30 percent, a surprisingly radical and possibly illegal conclusion coming from such a gathering.

It was first alleged, then quickly denied, that Laurent Blanc had personally supported this motion. 

Complicating things even more, Mediapart, an investigative website, published transcripts of the meeting, compromising the integrity of Laurent Blanc who is to be heard saying, "The Spanish tell me, 'We don't have this problem. We don't have any Blacks". 
This unfortunate sentence is being interpreted to mean that the limitations on the number of new admissions to the football schools could be set along ethnic lines, which would of course amount to blatant discrimination.

The underlying issue discussed was, how can the FFF react to the growing trend of promising young players, who gratuitously accept the training and preparation of France's model youth system and even participate in its selected junior teams at Clairefontaine, to then "defect," preferring to join their native country's selection as fully developed players, a practice made possible by newly reformed yet controversial FIFA statutes concerning dual nationals, which allow individuals to change their national football allegiance, until they are finally summoned to one nation's adult A-team.

Of course, France would not be truly French if such important events passed unnoticed, yet the inflamed debate now exploding throughout the country points to deeper wounds in the Nation's fabric than the—possibly inappropriately worded—discussion by a professional group, of how best to organize an educational sporting institution, would seem to justify.

Ever since the World Cup fiasco that culminated in the dismissal of Nicholas Anelka and the disciplinary suspension of Patrice Evra and Franck Ribéry—presumed to have been the central "agitators" in the "mutiny" against former head coach Raymond Domenech—the fate of French Football has been intertwined with what President Nicholas Sarkozy has promoted as a necessary and long overdue debate on what constitutes French "Identity" and its underlying "National Values."

Obviously, the fortunes of the formidable "Equipe de Football" have been identified as a central issue in this broader political context, as the President's personal and media savvy involvement in the aftermath of last summer's "scandalous behaviour" that supposedly "smeared the reputation of the entire French Nation" suggests.

Catering to the segment of the population that fears being marginalized and culturally alienated by growing numbers of immigrants and their second generation descendants—often with African ("Black") or Arabic ("Beur") ethnic background—the political far-right and some conservative-leaning commentators have demanded stricter codes of conduct for young athletes who want to represent "la Grande Nation" in international competition, sometimes inferring that somehow it would be more appropriate for them to be fair-skinned to merit wearing the national colors.

If, that is, they were also willing to intone the "Marseillaise" loudly and with bravado, especially when playing in Stade de France and in front of the President and of course, if they show their patriotism by regularly presenting filled income tax forms to the French fiscal authorities.

Unfortunately, some of these dubious prescriptions ignore the basic fact that football—in France as in other countries—often draws its greatest talents from the underprivileged segments of society.

In France's case, these people tend to be located predominantly in the "Black and Beur" neighborhoods.

Because, as in other Western countries, youths from these communities see sports as an accessible career choice (as opposed to academical paths, which are perceived as being reserved for economically more privileged children, in France often "Blancs"), they are possibly willing to work hard and sacrifice more from early ages on, in order to develop their physical talents and thus make their personal escape from the relative poverty and the stigmatization their social background carries.

A gifted few eventually succeed, as the idolized examples of Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele or Thierry Henry have shown.

Seen in the light of the political and social "malaise" the country is feeling in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and ahead of the next presidential elections in 2012, the mere idea of restrictive quotas is quickly associated with allegations of possible racial discrimination.

And, this being a serious legal offense in France, the government—represented by its new sports minister Chantal Jouanno—rushed in to officially investigate the "case."
After Nicholas Sarkozy had made it a state priority to "clean up the mess" which the French Football Federation's ineptitude at preparing the last World Cup campaign had left, FIFA president Sepp Blatter sternly warned that government interference in matters concerning football would not be tolerated, even if it comes from an honorable founding member of the World Football Federation.

Other federations—for instance Bosnia—have on other occasions been suspended from international competition for such violations of this basic FIFA principle of associative independence.

So political and moral posturing, highly popular and maybe rewarding in electoral terms, could bear a hefty price if FIFA really decided to sanction the French political elite's somewhat opportunistic behaviour.

What is even more troubling, though, is that just a dozen years after France unexpectedly won its first ever World Championship with a side then hailed as being a model of successful integration and even as proof of the ultimate supremacy of multiculturalism—at the time uniting and bringing immense joy to the entire Nation—mutual distrust, ethnic separation and latent racism are again rearing their ugly little heads in the exact Republic that brought the world the ideals of "Brotherhood" and "Egalitarism."

Sadly, the current debate and its outfall have not even made halt before the celebrated members of the very team that savoured that glorious moment of triumph and togetherness in the Stade de France in 1998.

The fiery defender Lilian Thuram and midfield sweeper Patrick Viera have now come forward via Twitter to denounce their captain of then as being "racist." Laurent Blanc is getting some public support from Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly.

Yet the damage to his authority has been done.

And although it has been unofficially leaked that "Monsieur, le Président de la République" will not accept his resignation under any circumstances, the hopes for a swift resurrection of Les Bleus have taken a hefty blow.

It can only be hoped that these unpleasant events currently taking place in the relatively confined area of Europe's favorite pastime will not become symptomatic for our societies as a whole, as we advance into an uncertain and restive future.