Race-quota scandal rocks France and sparks nationality debate

On walking through the streets of Paris this spring, it was hard not to be confronted by Nike’s landmark agreement to sponsor the French national team. The glossy posters showing Florent Malouda, Yann M’vila, Abou Diaby and Alou Diarra standing, arms crossed with steely determination, gave off the sense that a changing of the guard had taken place. Fifty-seven years with Adidas had been consigned to history, the coveted rights prised away with the promise of an annual cheque worth €42.6m until 2018.

Nike didn’t just set about marking a new era by redesigning the kits – and quite radically too, with the sailor-inspired Mariniére away shirt – but also perhaps more importantly by drastically rebranding a team in desperate need of a new direction.

During last summer's fiasco in South Africa, the players infamously went on strike following the decision by the French Football Federation [FFF] to send Nicolas Anelka home for allegedly telling Raymond Domenech to “Go f**k yourself, you dirty son of a whore”. That put paid to 2010's hopes, but more importantly it also indicated that the Black, Blanc and Beur element, so often mythologised as 1998’s great social legacy, no longer rang true – especially amid claims of bullying and the formation of clans divided over an apparent lack of “national identity.”

Stung but not surprised by his treatment, Anelka did his bit to confirm those reports in an interview with the pop-culture magazine les inRockuptibles later that year. “We have seen France’s real face,” he said. “In difficult times we see what people really think. Franck Ribéry hits Yoann Gourcuff. Gourcuff the good Frenchman, Ribéry the Muslim. We go too far. When you don’t win in France, we immediately speak of religion, colours…”

In light of the circumstances, the brief Nike received from the FFF and new manager Laurent Blanc couldn’t have been simpler – try, in the midst of great scepticism, to foster a spirit of reconciliation and social harmony. After hours of scribbling, head-scratching and presumably a few games of wastepaper-basketball, the marketing men came back with a slogan that seemed to strike the right tone. “Our differences unite us,” it read.

France model the historic new kit

As if inspired, France came together much quicker than expected. A seven-match unbeaten run, which saw les Bleus top their Euro 2012 qualifying group and record prestigious victories over England and Brazil in international friendlies, brought a renewed sense of optimism to the country.

But all that came under threat last Thursday when the investigative website Mediapart alleged that “members of the FFF’s National Technical Board [DTN], including Blanc, secretly approved a quota system to reduce the number of young black players and those of North African origin, emerging from the country’s youth training centres as potential candidates for the national team.”

France’s press officer Philippe Tournon initially answered for Blanc, denying that he could ever have supported such illegal, immoral and self-defeating selections based on ethnicity or skin colour, which “go against his philosophy” – and added that Blanc didn’t want to react himself so as to give the story too much publicity. However, given the seriousness of the claims, an appearance became inevitable.

Blanc duly emerged on Friday to say that he had “never heard mention of such a project,” only for Mediapart to then publish a verbatim transcript the following day in which he allegedly said that he was “very much in favour” of a quota on dual-nationality players and also damagingly argued that France was prioritising the development of footballers with physical rather than technical attributes, many of whom were black.

“You get the impression that we produce the same kind of players: big, strong, powerful ones. And who are the big, strong, powerful ones? The blacks. That’s the way it is. It’s a current fact,” Blanc was quoted as saying.

DTN head François Blaquart went on to admit that, while context needed to be provided, the Mediapart transcript was in fact genuine. “All the words reported remain true,” he said. “Some of the words may be shocking. There was some clumsiness, but it was in a passionate internal discussion. Apart from that, there is nothing harmful.”

Blaquart elaborated further by insisting that the idea of a quota, mooted at 30 percent, had since been abandoned, but acknowledged that serious questions were asked about a player’s motivation in choosing to represent France at youth level only to then switch their allegiance to another country.

An investigation was launched into the scandal, prompting France’s Minister of Sport Chantal Jouanno and FFF President Fernand Duchaussoy to suspend Blaquart pending its completion.

Blanc, meanwhile, sat down in front of the cameras again to apologise for his association with the plan. “I admit that certain terms used during a work meeting on a sensitive and wide-ranging subject could be interpreted ambiguously if removed from their context – and if I hurt anyone’s feelings, I apologise,” he said. “But to be suspected of racism or xenophobia when I’m against all forms of discrimination, I cannot accept.

“It would be in bad faith not to see that the debate in which I participated was not about ‘reducing the number of blacks and Arabs in French football’, as the sensational title of the article suggested, but about planning the future of French football and addressing the important and delicate problem of players with dual nationalities, as well as methods of scouting for a new project.”

Blanc flew to Italy on Sunday for a holiday, which was said to have been planned long in advance even though it meant he missed a scheduled public appearance at a youth tournament held in his name in Bordeaux. Whether the 45-year-old will survive the scandal remains to be seen. But a debate about dual-nationality and identity has started in earnest.

Regretta de Blanc: The coach is buttonholed by the media

After defending Blanc against accusations of racism, Alou Diarra, the Bordeaux midfielder of Malian origin who has captained France on several occasions this season, told Canal+: “I see a coach frustrated because the number of players eligible for selection has become limited. A call-up to the French team is very difficult to get. I can understand why some players reflect.”

This isn’t anything particularly new. After all, the great Saint-Étienne No.10 Rachid Mekhloufi, who won four caps for France, practically defected in the build-up to the 1958 World Cup by conspiring with eight other players to leave the country and organise a team to represent the Front de Libération National, a group fighting for Algerian independence. As a contemporary L’Équipe editorial mused, although “the France team remains […] the word ‘France’ will have a narrower meaning.”

History isn’t exactly repeating itself, but the issue remains. If anything it has become more contentious since June 2009, when the Algerian Football Federation requested and obtained from FIFA the modification of article 18, which authorises a player to change national team once without age limit on the condition of having not been capped at full international level in an official competition.

Up until that point, players had to make a decision about who to represent before their 21st birthday. This rule-change has seen the likes of Hassan Yebda, Habib Bellaïd and Djamel Abdoun, all of whom were born in France and played for les Bleus at youth level, don the shirt of Algeria.

And it’s not just the Desert Foxes who are taking advantage of this technicality. Senegal used it to call up Sochaux midfielder Jacques Faty, as did Poland in the case of Lille winger Ludovic Obraniak – much to the exasperation of those within the FFF, such as France Under-21 coach Erik Mombaerts, who asked: “How long can we continue to develop our opponents at the World Cup?”

Although at first glance that may appear to be an exaggeration, the statistics support Mombaerts’s argument. At the World Cup in South Africa last summer there were nine footballers representing nations other than France who had played for les Bleus at youth level. The highest-profile examples were Arsenal midfielder Alex Song and Tottenham defender Sébastien Bassong, both of whom opted to play for Cameroon.

Song (back, 2nd right), Bassong (back, 2nd left) and new friends

If, as Mombaerts claims, 26 players out of 30 who go through Clairefontaine then join a different national team it’s hard not to follow the great French tradition of existentialism and ask is there really that much point in devoting so much time, money and energy on the development of players with dual-nationality just so others can extract the benefit.

France's record cap-holder Lilian Thuram thinks it’s a “false problem” because in the end the best players like Raymond Kopa or Zinedine Zidane – both sons of immigrants, Polish and Algerian respectively – will always be taken on by les Bleus. “Karim Benzema plays for which country? Samir Nasri plays for which country?," he asked rhetorically. "The others, who won’t be kept on, will naturally go and play for other countries."

But then there is the case of a player like Lille striker Moussa Sow, currently Ligue 1’s top scorer with 21 goals. Born in Mantes-la-Jolie just 57km from Paris, he was a team-mate of Hugo Lloris and Yoann Gourcuff in the France Under-19 squad that won the European Championship in 2005. And yet during a period when a full international cap for les Bleus looked unlikely, he decided to play for Senegal. If Sow had been more patient, the French say, he would have earned a call-up.

Credence to that claim is given by Marouane Chamakh, the Arsenal striker born in the south-west of France, who admitted during an interview last September that he’d perhaps chosen to play for Morocco “a little hastily” before adding that he’d never regretted his decision because he remains very proud of his roots and knew that it was important to his family.

"Have I done this wrong?"

Still, it begs the question as to whether international football is something of an anachronism in a globalised society when on the one hand you have Ryad Boudebouz, the Alsace-born Sochaux midfielder who represented France at Under-17 and Under-19 level yet claimed he wanted to play for Algeria since the age of 14, and on the other you have Basile Boli, the Abidjan-born former Marseille defender and 45-cap France international who said that if he had been playing “at the heart of the Drogba generation I would perhaps have worn the shirt of the Ivory Coast”.

It’s another issue, along with goal-line technology, that FIFA should seriously consider reviewing. Several questions need answering, not least whether France’s national training centres are entitled to a degree of compensation for developing a player from the ages of 12 to 21 – in much the same way that their counterparts at club level are if graduates then go on to play for another team or country.

On the flip side, some might say that article 18 actively incentivises some football federations to invest in a network of scouts and lobbyists – let’s say, based in France – with the job of finding and persuading youngsters to play for their country rather than setting up academies back home. It's something which the Frenchman Jean-Marc Guillou did to great effect in the Ivory Coast with Asec Mimosas, where he brought through the likes of the Touré brothers, Emmanuel Éboué, Salomon Kalou, Cheik Tioté, Didier Zokora and Gervinho.

Whichever way you look at it, the dual-nationality debate is a complex one and with a presidential election only a year away in France it risks being increasingly politicised. The argument may have begun in the 1950s but it shows no sign of going away as the team and the nation come to terms with the multiculturalism they are endeavouring to foster.