Archive | May, 2010

Zinedine Zidane: More than just a headbutt

25 May

Zidane (right) battles with Kaka for the ball in the Quarterfinal match between France and Brasil at the 2006 World Cup

Zidane’s infamous headbutt during the final match of the 2006 World Cup that leveled the Italian Materazzi has no doubt etched itself into football lore. One commentator went so far as to call it the “headbutt heard round the world” in reference to the shot heard round the world which started the American Revolutionary War. Zidane was given a straight red card and sent off and while there was a sense that foul play was somehow involved, the only war that began was a war of words between Materazzi and the press. After the incident everyone wanted to know what Materazzi had said that had provoked Zidane to lose his cool during one of the most important matches of his career. Zidane refused to publicly state what had been said but the press charged that it was something to do with Zidane’s ethnic background and his mother, two things you do not want to insult. Zidane had become a symbol for multi-ethnic France and an incident like this can be interpreted multiple ways. One interpretation is that Zidane was in the right and that his reaction to what Materazzi said showed that he was unwilling to tolerate abuse. In this interpretation he should be remembered as a player who was proud of where he came from and did what he had to do to defend the honor of his family and his community. Another interpretation is that this proved that immigrants, even those as accomplished and well loved as Zidane was, are at the end of the day prideful, emotional, irrational, and most of all violent. Through this post I hope to show that there is more to Zidane than just a shiny bald head that can occasionally be used as a wrecking force.

In order to understand Zidane we must first look at the environment in which he was raised. He grew up in a rough suburb of Marseille called La Castellane which is largely inhabited by immigrant communities from places such as Algeria, Morocco, Caribbean islands, and French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa. La Castellane has a distinct culture that has been formed through the mixture of all of these groups and people there have no problem identifying themselves with Marseille, which has always been the toughest and most deprived of French cities. Zidane has repeated time and again that he is proud of where he came from and that he never forgets the people he grew up with. Zidane’s rags to riches tale, his great escape from La Castellane has made him a target for various groups who wish to use his story for their own political purposes. Racial tensions mounted in France in the late 90s and politicians hoped that Zidane would give young French people of North African origin (known as berbers) a sense of French identity for the first time. However, this was unlikely as Zidane makes it clear in the quote below that he is a Frenchman last.

‘And this desire never to stop fighting is something else I learnt in the place where I grew up. And, for me, the most important thing is that I still know who I am. Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman.’

Those working to relieve the racial tensions in France hoped that he would project a positive image of North Africans to mainstream France for the first time. I think it is safe to say that for the most part Zidane was accepted by the French public and that his appeal transcends the religious and racial divide in one of the tensest multi-ethnic societies in Europe. Most notably, in 2000 he came first in a poll for ‘the most popular Frenchman of all time’. The poll was conducted in the Journal du Dimanche, the bestselling French equivalent of the New York Times. Zidane reflects on the significance of his victory in the quote below.

“This is massive. Before it was hard to talk about certain things, especially if like me you came from a difficult area or from an immigrant background. But now it tells you how France has changed and is changing. It’s a message to everybody – politicians, the kids I grew up with, ordinary French people – about what can be done.”

I would just like to comment that as an American I am used to racial discrimination being largely based on skin color. In my eyes Zidane is white, because his skin color is white, and when I first read about the racial abuse he had faced I was taken aback. I cannot pretend to understand the complexities of racial issues in France and I wonder if the difference between being a white Frenchman and being an Algerian like Zidane is the same as being a white Frenchman and being a black African. The reason I bring this up is because I was going to ask if Zidane could have won “the most popular Frenchman of all time” award if he had been black because Zidane is an African but his skin color is white and I feel that I have grown up in a society that places a great deal of emphasis on skin color. That being said, the influential French social critic Pascal Boniface hailed Zidane’s popularity as no less than the beginning of ‘a new Enlightenment’. Zidane was right to celebrate this victory and surely it showed that things were changing in France, but it’s important to remember that he became a national hero because he possessed a unique gift. He garnered respect simply because he was valuable, an asset to the French national football team. Rachid Zekraoui, an employee at a community centre in La Castellane, pointed out, Zidane’s great talent and success cuts two ways. It shows that the son of a North African immigrant can succeed in France. But it also suggests that, even in the 21st century, a young person is “condemned to excellence” to escape from a place like La Castellane. The admiration that Zidane received from the French public translated into very little real change for the community that he claims to represent. For example, a different survey at the time found that 60 percent of people felt there were too many Arabs in the country. The youth in places like La Castellane understand this dynamic and an interview with one such youth, Majid, 14, reveals that “They tolerate us when we can play football well but, otherwise, there is no room for beurs or for people from places like this.”

Zidane was happy to win his award but remains eager to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible. The public knows very little about his personal life and even less about his political leanings, he fights his battles on the pitch rather than off it. He was heralded as the poster boy of multi-ethnic France after the 1998 World Cup victory but repeatedly remarked “I have no message.” He could have easily become a vocal activist for France’s under-represented communities such as La Castellane, the world was waiting for his comments on the social situation in France but he chose to remain in silence. “There are too many sharks around Zinedine,” explains his brother Nordine. “There are too many people who want to use him for political ends.” I can understand Zidane’s desire to solely focus on his craft, and in all honesty playing beautiful football should be his only responsibility but you can’t help but feel that players of his magnitude are almost expected to speak up. For example, in recent years the Berbers from the Kabylie region of Algeria, which is Zidane’s family’s home territory, have been in open conflict with the Algerian government. There are rumors of massacre and counter-massacre, but all that is really known in the West is that more than 100,000 people have lost their lives in the civil war that has devastated the country since 1992. Despite pressure from lobby groups, Zidane has never commented on the war in public. He has decided to stay out of politics, to keep his head down, and to focus on football which is possibly why he has enjoyed such fame in France. Fans get to enjoy Zizou’s fancy footwork without having to worry about hearing him drone on about issues in the Kabylie region or even in La Castellane, a bit closer to home.

Despite his efforts to stay out of the spotlight, an incident occurred after the 1998 World Cup that forced him to speak up. After the World Cup victory in 1998 Zidane mania reached its height but the celebration was short lived. Within days of the famous victory, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National, was growling in the press about the racial origins of the French team, singling out Zidane for faint praise as ‘a son of French Algeria’. His comment was carefully loaded. The term ‘French Algeria’ is never neutral in the French media: it returns one inevitably to the colonial state that only ended in 1962 after a long and brutal war. Then one of Le Pen’s henchmen declared that if Zidane was acceptable to the French it was only because his father had been a harki. This Arabic word describes the Algerians who fought for the French during the Algerian war and who were massacred or fled to France in its aftermath. The insult was calculated to cause damage and hurt, to smear the reputation of a man who had become a hero for so many, especially in the suburbs such as La Castellane. The extent to which the insults had shaken Zidane’s fan base was revealed during a friendly match between France and Algeria at the Stade de France in October 2001. It was billed as an historic moment of reconciliation between two nations but the Harki incident had turned it into much more. In the lead-up to the match Zidane received death threats. During the game, he was booed and taunted and, he said that he was ‘disconcerted’ by the posters that read ‘Zidane-Harki’. The match was abandoned after a violent pitch invasion by young French Arabs in the second half.

Zidane’s response to this fiasco was finally to break his public silence about his father’s identity. In a press statement he said,

“I say this once for all time: my father is not a harki. My father is an Algerian, proud of who he is and I am proud that my father is Algerian. The only important thing I have to say is that my father never fought against his country.’

Zidane should not have had to defend his family name but the fact that he did reveals the immense pressure on him. There is pressure from the Algerians living in France to be more Algerian and there is pressure from the French who want him to be more French. This could be why he has chosen to opt out of politics and try to avoid the spotlight as much as possible. It’s just too much to worry about on top of everything else. The result is that Zidane has had to walk a thin line. He is a representative for the immigrant community in France but not in a way that ostracizes the French public. He picks his battles and stands up for his family and his community when he feels it is absolutely necessary. After the 1998 World Cup, Zidane published a book, Mes copains d’abord (My Friends First). Zidane was here more explicit than he had ever been before about what the victory had meant for him and his community: ‘It was for all Algerians who are proud of their flag,’ he said, ‘all those who have made sacrifices for their family but who have never abandoned their own culture.’ No one seemed to notice when this quotation was quietly dropped from the second edition of the book. Nor that, in allowing this to happen, Zidane had committed a minor but telling form of self-betrayal.

Zidane lifts the World Cup after their victory in France in 1998


L’Equipe Tricolore: “Black, White, Berber” or “Black, Black, Black?”

22 May

About a week ago each country that will be competing in the 2010 World Cup submitted a preliminary 30 man roster to FIFA. The final 23-man squads will not be known until the 1st of June but these preliminary rosters have caused quite a stir. This is the point in the countdown to the World Cup where fans find out which faces will be representing their country and their national identity to the World. To see the list follow the link below

Click to access provisional1305.pdf

There have been some notable exceptions of big names that have raised some eyebrows such as Ronaldinho from the Brazilian Seleção and Benzema and Viera from the French national team. However, those familiar with the history of the French national team will not be surprised that 18 of the 30 players on their preliminary roster are black. Many of those 18 will end up in the starting 11 and it looks like France will once again field a team that is not “traditionally” French.

It is necessary to have a little background on the history of immigration in France in order to understand how it is possible that the majority of their team is non-white. It is also necessary in order to understand the response that the French public has had to these teams. There was a large influx of immigrants from former French colonies after World War II. The first wave arrived in the 1950s, but the major arrivals happened in the 1960s and 1970s. More than one million people, from the Maghreb region in northern Africa which includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania immigrated in the 1960s and early 1970s. As of 2006, the French national institute of statistics INSEE estimated that 4.9 million foreign-born immigrants live in France (8% of the country’s population). Furthermore, the number of French citizens with foreign origins is generally thought to be around 6.7 million according to the 1999 Census conducted by INSEE, which ultimately represents one tenth of the country’s population. The immigrant population in France is especially visible in neighborhoods on the outskirts of urban areas such as Paris. Racial tensions in France have boiled over in recent years and there have been large riots that have resulted in violent clashes with the police after cars were burned and businesses were looted and burned. The riots are a mixture of violence between the residents of the neighborhoods with large immigrant populations and the state (largely in the form of the police) and between different groups within the neighborhood itself including the immigrant population. There was a large riot in Paris in 1995 that caught the world’s attention and brought to light the disparities within French society. This happened during the build-up to the 1998 World Cup which was actually being hosted by France that year. The 1998 French national team is where our story begins in terms of how it came to look the way it does today.

If football mirrors society then it would appear that the French should be commended for their work in integrating their immigrant community into the rest of society. Their 1998 World Cup team was put forth as a shining example of what multi-ethnic France was capable of. Football mirrors society but France has chosen to use a funhouse mirror which has distorted reality in such a way that is both appalling and hilarious at the same time. The racial make-up of the French national team in 1998 by no means meant that there was an overwhelming appreciation or celebration of those who are descendants of immigrants. Their ability to make it into this top tier of elite football by no means meant that they would have had the same success had they tried their hand at business or politics. In most cases, were it not for their wealth of skills on the field, they probably would have gone the same route as the rest of the youth from their community and ended up in low paying jobs in the service sector. I am clearly skeptical of the extent to which the diversity of the 1998 World Cup team helped to heal an ailing France that was tearing itself apart from the inside. However, it would be unfair to completely dismiss the positive side of things.

L’Equipe Tricolore: Berber, Black, White. Winners of the 1998 World Cup.

One undeniably positive thing that came out of the success that the French national team enjoyed in the 1998 World Cup is that children of immigrant families now had heroes who looked like them. Zinedine Zidane, was idolized by children of Algerian immigrants living in poor areas throughout France and became something like a patron saint for these communities. I won’t delve too deeply into Zidane’s story in this post because I plan on having a separate post for that specific purpose. Suffice it to say he played a crucial role in affirming a positive sense of self worth for Algerian descendants living in France and proved that an Algerian descendant is capable of making a valuable contribution to society. I will admit that the multi-ethnic team that France fielded was progressive for its time. There is a great deal of politics that goes into the selection of the national team as they are seen as ambassadors of culture to the world. On the world stage every four years they are the actors, all eyes are on them. Even in countries like Brazil, a supposed “racial democracy”, there have been instances where the national team has been “whitened” and Afro-Brazilian players were excluded because Brazil wasn’t as keen to present that side of itself to the world. For this reason, I think it is admirable that France, as the host nation of the 1998 World Cup chose to field a team in which minorities were represented. The trouble is that not all Frenchmen would agree with me in this regard and there were sharp criticisms of what some considered as over-representation.

One of the nicknames for the French national team is Les Tricolores or L’Equipe Tricolore (The Tri-color Team) in reference to the blue, white, and red colors of the French flag that are used in their jerseys. Since the 1998 World Cup team the Tricolore has taken on a racial dimension and is now thought to represent the mixture of black, white, and berber (ethnic minority of Algeria) players on the national team. The multiracial makeup of the team has at times provoked controversy. In recent years, critics on the far right of the French political spectrum have taken issue with the proportional under-representation of white Frenchmen on the team. For example, National Front politician Jean-Marie Le Pen protested in 1998 that the “Black, Blanc, Berber” team that won the World Cup did not look sufficiently French. Mr. Le Pen is and was a very influential politician and the fact that he felt comfortable expressing openly that he thought the team was “artificial” because there were too many “players of color” is a bit frightening.

In terms of French football it seems that the age old saying that history repeats itself rings true. If we skip over the embarrassing run that France had in the 2002 World Cup in which they failed to win a single game or score a single goal we find ourselves in a situation that greatly resembles 1998. One change that occurred over time is that there were far more non-white players on the national team by 2006 (16 of the 23 man squad) and they dominated the starting 11. Aside from that, the banlieues of Paris ignited in racial riots again in 2005 and the success of the national team (France made it all the way to the final only to lose to Italy in penalty kicks) was touted as a unifying force.

World Cup  2006, the French national side that finished in second place

A well known French-Jewish philosopher named Alain Finkielkraut gives his opinion on the state of the French national team below.

People say the French national team is admired by all because it is black-blanc-beur. Actually, the national team today is black-black-black, which arouses ridicule throughout Europe. If you point this out in France, they’ll put you in jail, but it’s interesting nevertheless that the French national soccer team is composed almost exclusively of black players.

He brings up two interesting points, one is that he feels the color of the national team arouses ridicule from other European countries who presumably have “whiter” teams. This ridicule targets France more than any other European country because it is one thing to have a few black players on your team but a completely different thing to have that team be dominated by black players. He also mentions that to talk about these sort of things openly will get one in trouble. However, this hasn’t stopped Le Pen from making further comments about his disapproval of the direction the national team has gone. Before the 2006 World Cup, he said France ”doesn’t totally recognize itself in this team,” because there are too many ”players of color.” He also told the daily sports newspaper L’Equipe that “perhaps the coach went overboard on the proportion of colored players.” He then goes on to offer his insight into the waning support and lack of enthusiasm for the team that has been labeled black, black, black. “The French don’t feel totally represented, which surely explains why the crowds are not as supportive as eight years ago,” when France won the World Cup, he said. He’s not the only public official to speak out about their aversion to the current state of the national team. Two weeks ago, Georges Frêche, the Socialist president of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, was quoted as telling a local council that he was ashamed that so many of the 11 starters on the French national team are black. “It would be normal if there were three or four; that would be a reflection of society,” he was quoted as saying. “But if there are so many, it’s because whites are no good. I’m ashamed for this country. Soon there will be 11 blacks.” Finkielkraut was a bit off when he said that to talk openly about these issues in French society would have you thrown in jail. However, there were political repercussions for Frêche as he was thrown out of the Socialist Party after he made these comments. Lillian Thuram, who by the age of 34 had played over a hundred matches for Les Tricolores responded to Le Pen’s comments that insinuated that the players on the national team were “artificial” Frenchmen.

“When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. It doesn’t matter if we’re black or not, because we’re French. I’ve just got one thing to say to Jean Marie Le Pen. The French team are all very, very proud to be French. If he’s got a problem with us, that’s down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants.”

Thuram has since retired from football and started a foundation (The Lilian Thuram Foundation) that is working on understanding and addressing racial issues in France. He is an advisor to the Haut Conseil à l’intégration (HCI) (High Commission for the Integration of Immigrants), a position which allows him to come to the defense of his fellow players when they have been victims of racist attacks. He has a quote on his website that resonates with the Stand Up. Speak Up. campaign that Frenchman Thierry Henry spearheaded in collaboration with Nike (see previous post).

“ The world is a dangerous place to live. Not so much because of those who do wrong, but rather because of those who stand by and watch, allowing bad things to happen. ”
Albert Einstein

“ And you, where do you stand? ”
Lilian Thuram

I would like to conclude this post with a statistic that I found quite shocking and which I think sums this all up pretty well. On the 2006 French World Cup team 17 players out of 23 were from ethnic minorities, which outnumbers the 11 black members of parliament (out of 577). If Le Pen wants to complain about lack of proper representation maybe we should start with this.


For a brilliant film on racial tensions in France I would strongly recommend La Haine, it’s one of my favorite films.

Liverpool Anti-Racism

20 May

This iconic photograph of John Barnes, one of Liverpool’s most famous black players, shows him as he backheels a banana off the pitch that had been thrown by a racist fan.

Liverpool FC is one of many clubs in England that have taken steps towards addressing the issue of discrimination in football. According to the Equality Standard established by Kick it Out, Liverpool is still in the preliminary stage. However, I am very pleased with the work that they have done so far and would like to share two films with you that demonstrate that Liverpool is moving in the right direction.

The first is a one-hour documentary called From Gayle to Babel: The Black Contribution to LFC that premiered in 2008 and celebrates the contribution of black players to the club’s success story as part of  Black History Month. The documentary features revealing interviews with a host of stars describing their experiences as black players from the 1970’s through to the present day. The documentary brings together Anfield’s first black footballer Howard Gayle, together with contributions from John Barnes, Emile Heskey and Ryan Babel amongst others. I’ll admit that I’m not a Liverpool supporter and knew very little about the club’s history but still found this documentary very insightful and worth watching. It is especially interesting to look at this issue through a historical lens and to examine the changing situation of racism in football. In particular, the film covers how each black player paved the way for the black player of the next generation.

“The documentary shows pride in our diversity and celebrates the work of these footballers and the impact they’ve had at England’s most successful football club,” claims Rakesh Daryanani, Diversity & Inclusions Officer at LFC.

The film is available for free from Liverpool’s website and can be accessed through the link below

Another poignant film that Liverpool has to offer is called Colour Blind. The 20-minute drama was inspired by the 1970 comedy-drama Watermelon Man and shows a racist white family turn black for the day. The film was created after the gruesome murder of Anthony Walker, which was racially motivated. The murder jolted the Liverpool community and brought the issue of racial discrimination to the forefront of discussion. Four years after the murder, Liverpool FC chose to honor his memory  by teaming up with the Anthony Walker  Foundation to create the film.

David Okoro, Chairman of the Anthony Walker Foundation said: “By combining a very serious subject matter with comedy, the film manages to reach out to the same young people who are the focus of our education programme. If we can make just one person stop and think twice about the issues raised in the film then it can certainly be called a success.”

In response to the film, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard says, “I think we are moving in the right direction as far as racism is concerned but we have to stay on top of it and keep drilling the message into people and society as a whole.

The film is available for free and can be accessed through the link below


for more about the Anthony Walker murder read:

Show Racism the Red Card

20 May

England’s 2010 World Cup Squad supports Show Racism the Red Card

Another group, similar to Kick it Out, that has been successful at addressing issues of racism in England is Show Racism the Red Card. They are an anti-racist charity, which was established in January 1996. The aim of the organization is to produce anti-racist educational resources, which harness the high profile of professional footballers to combat racism. They have created anti-racist educational materials that are used in classrooms across England. Furthermore, their Community Education team is available to deliver workshops free of charge to schools and youth groups in North East England. The video below highlights some of the work that Show Racism the Red Card does in primary schools.

I think the video gives a good overview of the work that Show Racism the Red Card does in the classroom. However, when I was watching the video I couldn’t help but notice that all of the students in the class were white. I wonder what these sort of educational programs are like in a multi-racial classroom. It’s difficult to tell whether it would make a black child uncomfortable to talk about racism with his/her white peers or if this program would give them the safe space they need to bring up their experiences with discrimination.

Show Racism the Red Card relies heavily on support from prominent footballers in England and around the world to get their message out to the public. On their website there is a section called Players’ Views where different players express their opinions about the state of racism in football and society and some give recommendations for what they think should be done.

Here is an excerpt from Rio Ferdinand’s profile about his experience with racism in the stands as a kid growing up.

I’ve experienced it in the stands as well – I was only about 13 or 14 and my friend managed to get some tickets and we were sitting there and the game was going on, there were some black players on the away team. The guy in front was shouting loads of racist comments, ‘go back to where you’re from’ and making noises and stuff like that – I was just thinking ‘what’s going on?!’ and there was a policeman standing two yards to my left, so I looked up at him and he just looked right through me and carried on watching the game. I thought to myself he can hear it, I can hear it, so what’s he going to do? I thought this guy’s got to stop now but something happened and he started again. He turned around and said ‘You’re alright mate, it’s just them ones on the pitch’ and I just got up and left. I looked at the policeman and just shook my head and left the ground.

Comments: The story that Ferdinand tells exposes the absurdity and oftentimes contradictory nature of racism in football.

Here is an excerpt from Eto’o’s profile about racism and the 2010 World Cup:

Racism is something created and anything that has been created can be undone. Those of us who are black don’t need to prove anything, but we are made to feel that we always have to prove something.

I hope that in 2010 Africa will give the world a lesson, that it will be the best remembered World Cup ever – for the football and for everything else. What I want most of all is for that World Cup to be the most beautiful game that we have ever seen. It’s our World Cup and we have to work towards that. A lot of people don’t know what Africa is. They know about an Africa with disease and hunger, but they don’t know what Africa really is.

Comments: Eto’o reveals that he feels a need to prove something and perhaps this is why black players have risen to the top ranks of football. To be good is never enough; you have to be great. If you are black and come from a poor background then you have to be great to be able to compete with other young players who had the money to go to private football academies while growing up. You have to constantly prove your worth to coaches and managers once you make it onto a major club. Most of all, you have to be great if you hope to win over the hearts and minds of your own fans, fans who might write you off as just another black face. Part of what makes this situation so difficult is the fact that these individual black athletes bear the burden of representing their entire race. Let’s say for example that a black player makes a mistake and scores an own goal, this confirms the suspicions that some fans had that blacks can’t be trusted, that they are careless or that they are weak. That fan might turn to his neighbor and say something along the lines of, “see, I told you so. They’re a useless bunch.” White players are treated as individuals, while black players are treated as members of a larger group and their actions affect that group. Representing an entire race is quite a daunting task and places an undue amount of pressure on the backs of players like Samuel Eto’o.

Eto’o also reveals the importance of the 2010 World Cup, where (South) Africa must show the world that it is capable of hosting a world class tournament. There have been doubts since South Africa was first announced as the hosts four years ago and much has been done to try to quell those doubts. South Africa has gone through a major re-branding in efforts to shift attention away from the poverty, violence, and disease that are traditionally associated with Africa and to highlight the natural beauty, cultural richness, and modernity of South Africa today. This World Cup can’t be good, it must be great!

To see more Players’ views go to