France 4-1 Algeria, October 6, 2001: the dangers of the politicization of football


“In France, the triumph of the World Cup team was celebrated as a victory for multiculturalism”Philippe Roos

During the summer of 1998, it is said that the colors of the French tricolor weren’t red, white and blue. Rather, driven by the triumph of a multicultural team inspired by the World Cup, they had transformed to become black, White and beur (black, white and arabic).

You could say that this slogan helped reshape French national identity: it represented a spirit of diversity and inclusion on which a new, more tolerant France would build its success.

Indeed, there seemed to be a noticeable improvement in race relations after the 1998 tournament. Throughout the 1990s, France was plagued by Islamophobia: a 1990 The world The survey found that 76% of French people believed that there were too many Muslims in France, while 39% felt an “aversion” to Muslims.

“On the night of the final, Zidane Président was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe, while the cars honked en masse to the rhythm of the Marseillaise”David Ruddell

In 1996, France recorded the highest annual number of terrorist incidents to date (270), the majority of which were attributed to radical Islamist groups. These attacks have aroused widespread suspicion of North African immigrant communities, which has manifested itself in a sharp increase in acts of violence against these groups. The far right capitalized on this wave of xenophobia and, in 1997, the National Front won the largest share of votes ever recorded in a National Assembly election (14.9%). Before 1998, France was disunited, discouraged and in disarray.

The history of the French national team between 1998 and 2001 obliges us to reconsider the political importance of football.

However, the overwhelming presence of immigrant players on the World Cup team gave optimists hope that football could be used to heal a deeply divided society. For example, Marcel Desailly, born in Ghana, led an armored bottom line, while Christian Karembeu, raised in New Caledonia and outspoken critic of the repression exercised by the government against the former colonies, entered the final in the middle of ground.

Perhaps more particularly, Zinedine Zidane, whose parents emigrated from Algeria to Marseille, played a decisive role in France’s attacking configuration and was then named player of the tournament. The French rainbow team had come to represent the microcosm of a model multiracial society.

Across France, the World Cup team’s triumph was celebrated as a victory for multiculturalism. On the night of the final, Zidane President was projected on the Arc de Triomphe, as the cars honked en masse to the rhythm of the Marseillaise. At least superficially, France has entered an era of post-racist unity.

Stade de France, 2016Eric Salard / Wikipedia Commons

However, beyond that, nothing seems to change much. Unemployment rates among ethnic minority groups were higher than ever and racist hate crimes persisted, as immigrant communities continued to bear the brunt of systemic problems in French society. After all, it would be unreasonable to expect a sporting event to repair the wrongs of France’s ugly colonial past.

Among the fans, there was a startling sense of anger. Among the players, there were serious fears for their safety.

Among the most affected by the colonization of France were the Franco-Algerians. Released only in 1962 after a destructive eight-year civil war, colonialism was fresh in the Algerian collective memory. Despite this, Zidane’s role in France’s national team has left many Franco-Algerians feeling proud and embracing French national identity.

Unfortunately, it is this enthusiasm that French politicians would exploit by organizing a now infamous match against Algeria in 2001. After meeting his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in 2000, French President Jacques Chirac agreed to organize the first international friendly match between the two sides on October 6 of the following year.

From its inception, this match was seen as a political spectacle, a tool for advancing opinion polls. It was clear that no thought had been put on the safety of spectators or players.

What the organizers did not understand was that the match would be played out in an incredibly politically volatile environment. For Franco-Algerians, October 6 is a date of great historical importance: on October 6, 1961, the French police chief Maurice Papon introduced a very restrictive curfew for anyone of Algerian origin living in the suburbs Parisian. Organizing the match on a date that represented a long history of discrimination against so many Algerian supporters was not only insensitive, but also risked causing civil unrest.

At the same time, just two weeks earlier, the explosion of a chemical plant in Toulouse was wrongly attributed to an Islamist group. This highlighted the institutional racism of French law enforcement and the disillusionment of French Muslims.

Among the fans, there was a startling sense of anger. Among the players, there were serious fears for their safety. As French defender Frank Leboeuf later said: “It was a mess, a shame for our country … we did not play a football match, we played a political game for those who wanted to tell a story . “

As expected, the match was tense. After 55 minutes, France led 4-1. However, the technical brilliance of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires was overshadowed by the disturbing atmosphere of the stadium: agitated supporters cursed French players as fights broke out in the stands.

This tension peaked in the 77th minute, when a wave of fans invaded the field. Within minutes, the match was canceled.

The publicity stunt had failed. Riots break out across the Parisian suburbs as players and politicians have denounced the behavior of the fans. It seemed that Algerians would easily forget years of colonial oppression with a football match. For them, it was insulting.

The Franco-Algerian debacle put an abrupt end to a brief period during which football was considered a vehicle for tolerance. Interracial tensions have resurfaced, bringing racism to the forefront of public consciousness. It became very clear that the black-white-butter the mind was nothing more than empty platitude. For the French team, what followed was a series of scandals and pleadings between teammates which defined a disappointing decade.

The history of the French national team between 1998 and 2001 obliges us to reconsider the political importance of football. While teams and players have been used as figureheads for major movements, they are less effective in dealing with institutional issues like racism. As much as we can romanticize the power of football, it is sometimes important to remember its limits.


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