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The French Football Team and the Diversity Debate

  • Published at 07:05 pm August 3rd, 2018
Photo: Bigstock

Commentary on diversity

This year I had the privilege to go to Germany twice. On my first visit, when I turned on the TV for the first time in my hotel room, I saw a beautiful ad. The ad shows the faces of the great German football team, taking turns in appearing followed by the message “Wir Sind Vielfalt - Wir Sind Die Mannschaft” (We are Diversity/Plurality - We are the Team).

The debate regarding the diversity of the French team suffers from some parochial understanding from both camps. One party is claiming the French team to be actually an African team consisting mostly players of African origin. The other party claims that the African players are not of much use individually if they are stripped of the French team. Both are missing the point.

The French contribution to the development of these players is undeniable. These players are the products of a greatly devised French footballing academy. At the same time, the fact that the majority of the French team is now composed of a distant minority group is not irrelevant either. How many black players can you remember in the great French team of 1982 and 1986? Only Jean Tigana comes to mind. How many black players were there in the 1990 world cup winning Germany? None. The African players can’t win the world cup on their own. Agreed. Could France win the world cup without these players? A resounding no. An all white French team was no match for an all white Croatian team. The most successful champion Brazil are guided mostly by players with black African blood. You know what blood Pele carries. Zico is only the white Pele, not - Pele the black Zico.

And when was footballing greatness restricted only to world cup champions? Everyone remembers Hungary of 1954, not the champion Germany of that year. The 1982 Brazil team captured people’s mind, not the cup winner Italy. Can you restrict African influence in football just because an African state didn’t win the cup? In order to explain Cup winning you need to factor in lots of other issues. That is an entire chapter in sports anthropology and sports psychology. But haven’t African teams and players often punched above their weight? The 1982 Algeria was a gun team which just tore apart Germany in the group stage. They were denied a second round qualification by a mutually agreed game between Germany and Austria, an incident that roused much criticism and eventually paved the way to hold the last group games in the same time. The 1990 Cameroon were only denied by two penalties given to England. And France lost to two African teams in recent world cups (to Senegal in 2002 and South Africa in 2010) -- in the age of their footballing renaissance.

Can you deny the effect the individual African players, who otherwise come from modest African background and limited opportunities, are having on the modern footballing scene? It all started from George Weah of Liberia, a country that is hardly a good footballing nation. But that didn’t stop Weah to win the best player of the year award, which Ronaldo and Messi have now monopolized. The line then continues with likes of Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o to today’s Riyad Mahrez and Mohammad Salah. Can you strip Africa from these African players?

As I said, the point is simple. The minority players do not need to be non-French both in their national orientation and the way they are groomed. France do not need to be all white to call it a proper French team either. They both complement each other well and create a magic with this newly found diversity. If that is true for football then it can be true for all walks of life. There’s no doubt, that there are many French who appreciate this, along with us.

But while we globally want France to appreciate the greatness of her own diversity, we should also understand where the political intricacy comes in the picture. Surely, we can’t be that short sighted to naively believe that whatever discrepancy we find in some of France’s decision regarding minority simply collapses to white supremacy or Eurocentrism. None denies that these problems are real. Many European politicians, thinkers, and philosophers readily concede these issues and often they are the first ones to address it. But when it comes to politics we can’t reduce the problems in hand simply to these prisms of weltanschauung.

In the modern state based politics, most states are operating based on democratic values. But agreed upon democratic axioms often are understood differently when it comes to application. This is where the states part ways and often act in completely opposing manner, while trying to implement the same principle. A very good example can be shown between France and India.

Both the countries believe in the principle that religious diversity and equality should be observed in state operation and politics. The state machine should be indifferent to this diversity and can not let any one religion influence it. But in implementing this principle, France and India have chosen opposite ways. For France, maintaining this principle entails that manifestation of any religious symbols should be prohibited in public affairs. For India, anyone can assume any religious symbols in public affairs and they can’t be demurred (again you have to have both political acumen and broadness to understand this principle India holds generally and not lose track by what BJP and extreme Hindu nationalists are doing right now). This is where the whole hijab and niqab issue arises in France, and not in India.  You can pick who’s your favorite but at the same time you have to appreciate the subtle intricacy involved in how we interpret laws and principles.

I remember asking this specific question to a German gentleman working there in an office related to migration. Citing this difference between India and France in interpreting the same democratic principle, I wanted to know from him how Germany grapples with this issue. He admitted that while the problem is not as prominent as in France, it is not easy either in Germany. There are some public places where religious manifestation is deemed harmful there as well. For an example, he said niqab for a teacher in school is not acceptable in German educational policy.

While we all want diversity and fruitful coexistence to happen in the world and to happen as soon as possible, we shouldn’t just resort to verbose self righteous rhetoric. We need to all understand that we are tackling a difficult issue and we need to understand others’ perspective more. That understanding will bring trust. Trust is our only choice.

Wir sind Vielfalt.

Nous sommes la Diversité.
We are Diversity.