Should youths with dual-nationalties go to the back of the queue for academy places? The race row has raised tricky questions for France's authorities
Laurent Blanc's continued employment as France manager is in jeopardy because he conflated two issues in a way that was, at best, clumsy and, at worst, racist. The issues that he and other members of French football's top brass discussed at a meeting last November, whose contents were leaked by Mohammed Belkacemi and published last week, were ones that he and others had addressed in public many times before: what should the country's football authorities teach young players? And which young players should they teach? Both questions are obviously legitimate. But debate rages over the legitimacy or otherwise of the answers that they reportedly proposed, and the assumptions that may have underpinned them. One year out from a presidential election, the debate has become heavily politicised.
Since taking over as manager of Les Bleus last August Blanc has advocated concentrating on cultivating technique and intelligence rather than power and speed. In the leaked meeting he reiterated this philosophy and regretted that French academies seem to be populated primarily by youngsters chosen for their athletic prowess more than their football flair. He claimed that these youngsters tended to be black. "You have the impression that they really train the same prototype of players: big, strong, powerful … What is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks. That's the way it is. It's a current fact. God knows that in the training centres and football schools there are loads of them."
Although Blanc had stressed earlier in the conversation that a person's race was of no concern to him and that it would "suit me fine" to field a France team consisting entirely of black players if the best players happened to be black, the 'prototype' statement has been the focus of much of the furore, with many complaining that it could be construed as an endorsement of the cobwebbed racist notion that, basically, black people are physically superior but mentally inferior. Big and strong but blunt and dumb. Blanc, who has since admitted that he spoke maladroitly (he would surely have chosen his words more carefully if he'd known his comments were going to be published), professes to be "outraged" at this interpretation. Surveys and interviews suggest most people give him the benefit of the doubt, which seems reasonable as he has never previously been associated with bigotry and all visible actions in his playing and managerial career suggest race has played no part in his decisions. Indeed, one of the few players who has spoken publicly on the controversy is Alou Diarra, a black man and midfielder whom Blanc signed for Bordeaux and appointed captain of France. Diarra acclaimed Blanc for his open-mindedness, pointing out that when he was manager of Bordeaux he amended training schedules to enable Muslim players to observe Ramadan.
The second issue that Blanc and the Fédération Française de Football officials discussed, which was jarringly muddled with the first issue, is more interesting and also more difficult to resolve – not just for France but for all countries competing in international sport. To pit one nation against others, one has to determine who should represent a given nation and in increasingly diverse societies that is increasingly complex.
Consider this: a boy called, say, Marmaduke, is born in London. His father is Japanese, his mother is German. By his mid-teens he's such a good footballer that England U-16s are considering picking him and the FA is contemplating giving him a place in its elite training academy (this is the future, see, and England has such a thing). However, there is only one place available and there is another equally talented candidate, who was also born in London but to exclusively English parents and grandparents, which means that, unlike with Marmaduke, there is no prospect of him choosing to play for Japan or Germany at a later date (unless, of course, he goes to live there and acquires a passport under naturalisation laws). Which player should the FA give the place to? How should the decision be made?
In the leaked meeting the French officials discussed similar scenarios because many of the players in their country's training academies are like Marmaduke and many alumni – first, second or third-generation immigrants – have already chosen to play for countries other than France despite, in some cases, having won titles with France at youth level. "When people wear the jersey of the [French] national team at Under-16, Under-17, Under-18, Under-19, Under-20 and A level and then they go to North African or African teams, that bothers me enormously," Blanc said. "We have to limit that."
Although Blanc initially denied that he had ever heard any talk of imposing quotas, transcripts of the November meeting subsequently revealed that it was suggested no more than 30% of the places in French training academies should be filled by players who have dual nationality and could, therefore, one day declare for another country. Erick Mombaerts, the Under-21 manager, appeared to be in favour and the national technical director, François Blaquart, intimated that he had already given orders for it to be applied on the QT and has since been suspended pending the outcome of investigations by both the FFF and the Ministry of Sport. According to the transcripts, the one person at the meeting who objected to the introduction of such a plan – the Under-19 manager Francis Smerecki – complained that not only was it discriminatory but it might also mean investing in inferior players: if a Marmaduke could not take a place in an academy because the quota for people with foreign roots had already been filled, then the place may have to go to a less talented player: true, that player would not have the possibility of representing another country, but is he really the sort that France want to turn out for them?
A sinister undertone to the fallout of France's 2010 World Cup fiasco was the degree to which it became politicised. In particular, it fuelled the 'enemy within' strain of anti-immigration lobbying, with critics claiming that it was no surprise that many of the players behind the mutiny in South Africa were black or Muslim (or both) because such folk tend to be incompatible with France: their presence leads to discord. Football had already fanned that debate in France, most recently before a France-Tunisia friendly in Paris in 2008, when Tunisia supporters, many of whom had been born in France, booed the French national anthem and cheered for the opposition.
Blanc has never publicly subscribed to the notion that people of foreign origin are to be distrusted. After last year's World Cup fiasco he merely decried the lack of a team ethic and 'pride in the shirt', and since taking charge he has strived to address these perceived shortcomings. One method has been to insist that all players learn the national anthem.
At November's meeting he suggested that a way of ensuring that fewer France-raised players choose to play for other countries would be to reinforce their feeling of Frenchness. He intimated that respect for "our culture, our history" could be one of the criteria for admission to academies and that once in those academies players could be given "help" to "determine their identity". This was not elaborated on, at least not in the transcripts available so far.
Similar-sounding suggestions are common in the political arena, in France and elsewhere, but it would have been interesting to hear exactly how the FFF might have followed this up. When referring to "our culture, our history", was Blanc suggesting that 12-year-old aspiring footballers should only be admitted to academies if they can prove their knowledge of Napoleon, Voltaire and Johnny Halliday? Or did he mean football culture and history? Would this apply only to the children of immigrants? It is not certain but, with a presidential election one year away in France and political point scoring a priority for many, it has been noted that the former might not be radically different from the loyalty tests that the National Front has campaigned to have foisted on the children of immigrants (or similar, perhaps, to the tests that immigrants to Britain must pass before being granted citizenship). Race, nationality and identity are different things but that was not always clear in the FFF debate, just as it often isn't in political debates.
Fifa rules stipulate which players countries can pick. Governments decide who can get passports. French football officials were debating whether to deliberately exclude people that both Fifa and the government allow them to pick. People in other countries often do the same. The debates about the mooted England call-up for Manuel Almunia showed that. Many fans were opposed on principle even though the government says he is entitled to citizenship, the England cricket and rugby teams would have had no qualms about selecting him if he were good enough and he has spent more time in the country than, say, Owen Hargreaves. Similarly, many Irish fans scoffed recently when Jermaine Pennant revealed that he was considering declaring for the Republic, the land of his grandfather. The reason many fans gave was that Pennant had not made his Irish roots known before and was presumably only doing so now because he had finally accepted that England were not going to give him a game. He is, therefore, an opportunist. But how could they know that? And even if they were right, so what? Is it wrong to go to the country that gives you the best opportunities? He would only be picked if he was the best man for the job. Isn't that how it should be?