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Racism still threatens the Rainbow Nation’s triumph

In the latest of a shamefully sporadic series of opinion posts, Gav Reilly examines how racism in football is now a shamefully First World problem.

One of the recurring motifs of the first World Cup [1] to be held in Africa is the fact that despite the host continent being the world’s poorest, and the home nation being the home of one of the worst racially divisive regimes known to man, that soccer – and sport in general – has the power to transcend politics, and race, and unify humankind in a very simple and touching way.

It’s ironic, then, that while Africa rejoices in its first major international sporting occasion, it’s a positively First World team that’s showing us how racism is a problem that resides much closer to home.

If you checked the Irish Times’ website [2] earlier today you might have seen that four of the top five most read pieces all pertained to the ignominious exit of France’s from the World Cup after les cheats bleus’ 2-1 loss to the host nation. To be fair, it’s not like we’re not entitled to feel a little bit smug at the collapse of the team who so cruelly disposed of Ireland in November’s playoff [3].

But Ireland’s Schadenfreude, however understandable, is most unfortunate – given the hay that the French far-right political lobby are making in the wake of their team’s exit.

France line up for La Marseillaise before their humiliating loss to Mexico.

The problem for France’s more hyper-conservative factions is that their national squad is now predominantly made up of immigrants  majority black, immigrant-based. While currently this would only be a problem for the likes of the National Front – the party most known for its platform that French citizenship should be solely restricted to those native to the country, and for demanding a blanket ban on all immigration to the country.

Indeed, France’s footballing history is dominated by those without purely French origin. Michel Platini, as his surname would suggest, is half-Italian; Zinedine Zidane’s parents are Algerian immigrants, and Thierry Henry’s auld pair are from Guadeloupe and Martinique. Neither, as Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh would say, a football stronghold.

But when sporting times are tough – as they undoubtedly are today, with the squad preparing to fly home in economy class as a mark of the FFF’s disgust with their behaviour – a worryingly common sentiment comes to the fore. The fact that the French collapse seems to have been exacerbated by Nicolas Anelka – a black man, although only a third generation immigrant – has merely amplified a worrying narrow-mindedness.

The flop of the current generation has awakened a perception among worrying proportions of the French public that immigrants from the former French colonies in Africa are seen as being universally materialistic, devoid of national pride and loyalty to the flag. After all, how can these people be loyal to France if they aren’t from the country?

This attitude, it should be noted, may not be helped by the fact that the French squad do not sing their national anthem with any degree of interest or empathy. Or that Eric Abidal, aside from singing the national anthem of the country that has raised him,chooses instead [4] to wave to the camera.

When the players do arrive home, they could very well be shepherded through a smaller military or private airport, rather than have to face the ignominy of racial abuse through the terminals of Charles de Gaulle airport.

Racism is not a temporary fad in French football though. In January 2005 a league game between PSG and Lens was marked by the teams playing in all-white and all-black kits, as part of a national campaign against racial discrimination in sport. The experiment couldn’t have gone worse: racist PSG fans began to chant ‘allez les blancs‘ in a deliberately provocative gesture, and made monkey chants when Lens players (dressed in black) touched the ball. The grand gesture had become a monumental farce.

There’s also a regular pattern of players who claim to have been the victims of racial abuse at league games; Abdeslam Ouaddou from Valenciennes was once booked for challenging a fan’s racist gestures towards him. The referee, perhaps conveniently, didn’t see the racist gesture to which Ouaddou was responding.

At the last World Cup in Germany – a country with its own long and troubled history of acceptance of foreign nations, but which currently reaps the rewards for generations of Polish and Turkish integration into its society on the pitch – each game was preceded by representatives from each team being part of a gesture against racism.

At the Rainbow Nation’s World Cup, it’s a shame that some of the supposedly more advance countries can’t heed a similar message.