Football is always about more than football. This is especially true during a World Cup , when a staged face-off between national teams concentrates on stereotypes and enflames political tensions.
Who can forget when the U.S. was beaten by Iran in the final minutes of their group-stage encounter in 1998? Or when the reigning world champions France were defeated by Senegal, a former French colony, in their first match of the 2002 tournament? Or when Luis Suárez’s handball stopped Ghana from becoming the first African team to reach a semi-final in the only World Cup ever to be held on African soil in 2010?
Talking about identity
The 2018 edition of the World Cup had plenty of similar subplots. There was controversy when a group of Swiss players of Kosovan origin celebrated their goals against Serbia by making the shape of an eagle , a symbol of Kosovan nationalism. And more than one football pundit bemoaned the fact that, by the semi-finals, the remaining teams were all from Europe.
But there has been no bigger political talking-point than the identity of the winning French team.
Through no fault of its own, France’s talented squad has found itself in the middle of an ideological battle, which has mostly revolved around its alleged “Africanness”.
This debate has a long history. Back in the mid-1990s, the French far-right made much of the fact that the national football team was not really French because it included so many black and brown players with diverse origins. The squad responded to these criticisms by winning the World Cup for France for the first time in 1998 and giving rise to wild hopes that a self-consciously multicultural team would allow the French to embrace its complex heritage.
Unfortunately, this is not what happened. The far-right continued to grow, culminating in the shock presence of the openly racist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in 2002.
At the same time, young French people of African, Caribbean and North African origin complained bitterly about discrimination, unemployment and institutional racism. This led to riots in 2005, when the country’s impoverished banlieues (suburbs) erupted into violence.
More recently, several French cities have been torn apart by terrorism as European followers of Islamic State have decided to make an example of a country that, in the eyes of many radical Islamists, is uniquely hostile to Islam.
Not even football could redeem a fractured society. Zidane’s infamous headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final, the French team’s embarrassing “mutiny” and early exit from the 2010 World Cup, and Karim Benzéma’s expulsion from the team in 2015 for blackmailing his fellow players only fanned the flames of those who claimed that the roots of France’s ills lay in its proliferation of ethnic minorities.
All of this meant that the French did not have very high expectations of their team in this World Cup. Few believed that another multi-ethnic melting pot of star players could solve the country’s problems and, even after the French victory, no political commentator has been willing to bet on redemption through football. There is a keen awareness today that the steady trickle of critics who want to use the composition of the French football team as a platform for rampant xenophobia will soon return.
Imagine the surprise in France, then, when radical Twitter and late-night comedy shows started to turn this age-old accusation on its head. In particular, in a much-circulated segment of his enormously successful American TV show, South African comedian Trevor Noah openly congratulated the French by saying that “Africa won the World Cup”.
The response was instantaneous. A whole raft of people — especially in France — accused Noah of racism, and even the French Ambassador to the U.S. was moved to write a letter to the comedian to tell him that his comments threatened the integrity of the French Republic. Noah replied by saying that the French should learn to embrace their multiple identities and recognise their colonial heritage.
This awkward stand-off reflects a well-known peculiarity of French political culture, namely the French state’s formal commitment to a colour-blind republican philosophy of integration that consigns questions of race and religion to the private sphere. It is the same logic that led the French state in 2003 to ban the wearing of the Islamic headscarf and other religious symbols in French state schools.
Such a strong public philosophy is often incomprehensible to people outside France. In many parts of the world, the French insistence that race does not exist and that the state should remain rigorously secular seem strange. Would it not be better to celebrate France’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition? Would this not allow the French to face up to the waves of immigration that are the most visible legacy of a violent colonial past?
On social attitudes
Perhaps it would. But things are not quite that simple. Over the past century and a half, France has received — and successfully absorbed — millions of immigrants from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. For better or for worse, almost all of them have wanted to become French and have clung tightly to their French identity. This was true even during moments of crisis, like the Second World War, when the French state tried to strip some of them of their citizenship.
Moreover, large-scale surveys of social attitudes over the past few decades show clearly that the French are becoming more tolerant in their attitudes towards race, ethnicity and origin. The fact that more French people than ever are willing to call their country racist does not mean that France today is more racist than it was half a century ago.
Has this deep attachment to citizenship and a growing tolerance towards ethnic difference come about because of France’s much-maligned colour-blind republicanism? Some would say yes; others would argue exactly the opposite. One thing is for sure, though: the claim that this World Cup-winning team is “African” is factually incorrect.
There is nothing wrong with Noah, or umpteen other people all over the world, supporting France because the team is African, black or simply not-very-white. But this does not reflect the life stories of the players or their own relationship to their country.
Some of the team’s most iconic stars like Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Kylian Mbappé are pure products of contemporary France. They grew up in depressed neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Paris; they went to French schools; and their only footballing dream was to emulate the “great” French team of 1998.
They will know the difficult stories of their immigrant parents and they will have suffered intense racism while growing up, but they almost certainly feel more comfortable in Paris or Lyon than Bamako or Casablanca.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to remember that they are only young footballers. Rather than force on them an African identity they may or may not choose to inhabit, we should leave them to enjoy their spectacular victory and their understandable pride at having represented a country they know does not always live up to its own ideals.
Emile Chabal is a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of ‘A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France’.