UNITED IN PLURALISM
Attracting both criticism and acclaim, the French embrace of multi-racial plurality, as exhibited in its football team, has sent a critical message of unifying differences in today’s atmosphere of hate.
In the July 17 episode of American late-night news satire programme The Daily Show, host Trevor Noah celebrated France's victory in the 2018 FIFA World Cup by cheekily saying "Africa won the World Cup!" Slightly racist albeit not malicious by intent, the joke from the South African comedian was in reference to a majority of French footballers being of partial or complete African ancestry. In its squad of 23 players, 16 are of African descent or have parents who were born in the African continent. Noah's joke drew a gaggle of laughter and cheers from the studio audience, as he went on to add that after Senegal and Nigeria were knocked out in the group stage of the football extravaganza, many people of African origin were rooting for France's victory in Russia.
However, with political correctness being the norm of our times, in no more than 48 hours, he received a scathing letter from Gérard Araud, the French Ambassador to the USA. The senior diplomat pointed out that "nothing could be less true". Araud's letter read: "As many players have already stated themselves their parents may have come from another country but a great majority of them were born in France; they were educated in France; they learned to play [football] in France; they are French citizens. They are proud of their country, France."
On July 18, Noah acknowledged the letter and defended himself by saying that for African people around the globe, France's victory was a victory for their African-ness as well. He went on to throw light on the neo-Nazi movement gathering momentum in various parts of France, as well as Europe, whose advocates have often disclaimed the right of black people in France to be called French simply because of their skin colour. "This is what I find weird about their argument, 'They are not African, they are French'; why can't they be both," questioned Noah, which elicited applause from the audience.
France is a nation known for its colonial exploits across the world, especially in the African continent where one-third of the countries were under French rule at some point in time. As per the estimates of a conservative French think-tank Institut Montaigne, around 85 per cent of the French population is of European origin and predominantly white-skinned. Then come people with north African ancestry, who comprise 10 per cent of the French population. Around 3.5 per cent of the people are black and have roots in African colonies which were ruled by the French at one time. The rest of the population comprises of people with Asian heritage.
Officially, however, it is nigh impossible to determine on skin colour what percentage of the French population belongs to which race, due to a law dating to 1872 which prohibits performing census by making a distinction between its citizens regarding their race or their beliefs.
France is one of the leaders of the developed world, not least because of having accepted people of all and any ancestries living on its soil as French people. And, this sentiment of inclusion has been echoed strongly in its national football team over the last two decades. In 1998, Les Blues hosted the 16th edition of the FIFA World Cup at their home soil and won it in tremendous fashion with a 100 per cent win record. Once again, that team which lifted the coveted trophy was filled with players of different ancestries; most notably their talismanic attacking midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who is of Algerian descent. There were other prominent players of African ancestry, such as defenders Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram, the towering Patrick Vieira in midfield and Bernard Lama as the goalkeeper. It also comprised of a then 20-year-old Thierry Henry, who went on to become the country's record goalscorer.
20 years later, another young crop of talented young footballers has won the World Cup for France, this time in Russia, proving that skin colour is hardly a qualification to be a part of Les Blues. This year's Best Young Player Kylian Mbappé was born to a Cameroonian football coach and an Algerian former handball player. The 19-year-old inherited his sporting genes from his parents and a love for his country from the Parisian soil that he was born in. The French national team's central midfield trio comprises of three African origin men. Manchester United's Paul Pogba, who was born to parents of Guinean origin; N'Golo Kanté, whose parents migrated to France back in 1980, 11 years before he was born; and Blaise Matuidi, who was born to a Congolese mother and an Angolan father.
And, it is not only Africa that has contributed in a way to France's victory in this World Cup. Their star forward and number seven Antoine Griezmann was born to a father who emigrated from Germany and a mother who is of Portuguese descent. Fullback Lucas Hernandez's father is of Spanish descent but born in France. Striker Olivier Giroud, France's fourth highest goalscorer, is of a partial Italian descent.
But is France the only nation whose success can be attributed to players with a unique lineage? Belgium, arguably the fiercest attacking side in this edition, has some talismanic players whose roots can be traced to an African nation. At the ripe age of 25, striker Romelu Lukaku – whose father Roger played for the Congolese national team – is today Belgium's record goalscorer. His brother Jordan too has played for the national side. Young winger Adnan Januzaj has his roots in the conflict-prone nations of Kosovo and Albania. Midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, in spite of their Moroccan origin, chose to represent Belgium – their birth nation – and have accumulated over 50 caps each.
Coming back to Trevor Noah's appropriation of the French World Cup victory as that of Africa's, one needs to read several hundred years of history to realise the injustices and tyrannies the African people underwent at the hands of the different colonial empires, including Belgium and France. Noah's viewpoint may seem blinkered to a few, but those who may have read about the South African satirist's own hard-knock life will see more than a justified reason in his celebration.
The United States of America – a country whose very roots can be traced to the immigration of Europeans voyagers dating back to the 15th century – is today a melting pot of different ethnicities, cultures, races and ancestries. Come 2026, the US will host the 23rd edition of the FIFA World Cup, along with neighbours Mexico and Canada. It would be an understatement to say that these are turbulent times in the US, as it engages with its neighbours, especially Mexico, on the issue of porous borders and immigration, illegal or otherwise, repeatedly. Yet, one would be gravely mistaken to assume that the US belongs predominantly to one race of people, even if the political atmosphere indicates so. One can only hope that eight years later, things change and lovers of football get to witness a World Cup that is a celebration of pluralism and unity among all races and ethnicities.