Football as a mirror: multiculturalism and multinationalism in sport

Laurent Blanc in jeopardy as race row rattles French consciousness | Paul Doyle | Football |

When stories started to break about the French Football Federation’s consideration of ethnic quotas, it was easy to assume the worst – that this was indicative of changing mores in French football from the 1998 World Cup winning team being celebrated for representing all manner of French people to a more absolutist sense of who is French on the lines of banned headscarves and “powerwashing” public housing of protestors a la Sarkozy.

But beneath the private conversations which could most politely be described as awkward, there lies a challenge of football that has as much to do with multiple nationalities and labor mobility as it does with France’s questionable record in assimilating migrants from its former colonies.  Laurent Blanc may well have sounded like he was reviving old stereotypes of black players, but this is the same man who accommodated Muslim players for Ramadan as a club coach. Blanc does have a point though when he describes the costs associated with children of immigrant parents who go through the French academy system and then decide to play for Algeria or Senegal. As a lumpen Anglo-Saxon market-type, I’d view that as an investment management issue, perhaps the French see it more as a failure of dirigiste central planning.

But leaving aside the thorny question of what country one identifies with, why wouldn’t young players with more than one passport alternative want to evaluate their choices about which shirt to put on? The various football federations are perfectly willing to pick players who might help their national teams win / earn money, it just so happens that the labor eligibility requirements are a little less easy to change. And football looks like a paragon of playing in the spirit of the rules by comparison to rugby union (Scotland’s legions of players whose Dunedin accent was 4th generation Kiwi weren’t there for the purity of the display of skill) and cricket.

Claiming that turning out for another country’s team is somehow underhanded tends to be an argument deployed by the butthurt: either a football federation that just lost a likely meal ticket, or a player who’s not good enough for their “home” team and decides to embrace their past. It’s particularly rich for the French to moan about their academy money going to Senegal’s benefit, oh poor maltreated colonial metropole, just as it was entertaining to see supporters of the US national side go mental about Giuseppe Rossi turn out for Italy when the federation openly is trying to grab players from turning out for Mexico because that’s where their parents are from.

That’s not to say that there aren’t difficult non-monetary questions at play here – the element of tribalism adds extra venom to what is otherwise a market seeking some kind of equilibrium within narrow parameters. Assimilation is a huge challenge no matter what ostensibly open, tolerant western society is involved, and football will reflect that. It’s hard to say who’s “one of us,” just as it’s hard to say “I’m one of you now.” I still face this challenge after nearly 30 years in the US, and I’m an Anglo-Saxon white-c0llar type who doesn’t really have to do much to fit in. Faced with constant affirmation that “you are not one of us unless you can pass a ball 40 meters to within a couple of centimeters,” it’s no wonder that young immigrants or children or immigrants in France latch onto “the motherland” team out of pre-emptive spite: “We didn’t want to be in your club anyway!”

Maybe the issue in France isn’t monetary at all. For those who are inclined to reject “foreigners,” there’s no rational response – they may change, eventually they’ll die off. But I wonder if maybe the issue isn’t so much that being white is French, so much as respecting the process: if you are selected, if you go through the process, you should stay within the institution. Even with quotas, one might well argue that sort of assimilation is more likely in football than outside the grounds… but only if the FFF doesn’t panic and over-compensate one way or the other.