Over at his blog, Ludovic Lestrelin (a football / sport sociologist specialized in fans and supporters, well worth following) has an interesting post (and a version published by Le Nouvel Observateur) on the convergence of the World Cup, globalization and support for national teams. I’ll highlight the main points since the post is in French, obviously, with my comments in there as well.
As we are getting close to the end of the group phase of the World Cup, a few teams will be going home. What of their supporters? Do they still to go, or watch, the games once “their” teams are done?
For Lestrelin, the system of sport-as-spectacle has two pillars:
Uncertainty tied to the confrontation at every game; after all, the current World Cup has already produced a few surprises with “big” teams not making it through the group stage (so long, Spain and England). At the same time, the whole system of qualification rounds pretty much guarantee a certain equalization between the different teams as no team would have made it past the qualification stages if it weren’t of good caliber.
Identification: this is the sociologically well-known in-group / out-group dynamic, the team becomes “we” and everyone else is “them”. In his most recent book, David Goldblatt emphasizes the importance of football in solidifying nationalism in Brazil. Also insert appropriate reference to Benedict Anderson’s imagined community. There is no question that, whatever the motivation (be it political or crassly commercial), these kinds of global competitions are major vehicles for the production of nationalism (also see Durkheim on the importance of such rituals).
But wouldn’t the last point mean that once one’s team is disqualified, the experience is over for the fans and supporters? Well, one possible reaction is resentment. One certainly the highly negative reactions triggered by the incidents with the French team at the last World Cup in 2010 where the players were accused to be traitors to their countries, happy to play well for the individual teams that pay them handsomely, but reluctant to break a sweat for “their” national team.
For Lestrelin, there is more though, as football does not necessarily lead to ultra-nationalism (pun intented). Indeed, Lestrelin argues, that one gets a stronger and more emotionally involved sport experience once one has chosen a side and so, the supporter of a losing team finds a substitute allegiance, having to do with their individual history and experience.
This is not new but increased migration and geographical mobility in the context of globalization has made finding such replacement allegiance easier to find. But the main point is that these replacement allegiances have their roots in individual history and experience: you root against the team that beat “your” team, you root for the team of the country where you studied for a term, the country of your best friend, or whatever, etc. Of course, one can also root for individual super-players. Lestrelin notes that in 2002, quite a few French supporters from the Lens and Sedan clubs supported Senegal as many Senegalese players played in these two clubs.
Increased migration and presence of diasporic communities also provide easy multiple allegiances as societies become more diverse and cosmopolitan. Indeed, as Lestrelin notes, supporters of Algeria or Turkey or Morocco are not hard to find in France or Belgium. Immigrant communities do not cut emotional ties with their countries of origin and these get reactivated at times such as the World Cup. National identity as floating signifier in a multi-layered experience, not necessarily primarily tied to national citizenship.
Actually, for Lestrelin, supporters’ experience is less and less national. Allegiance is not a given. One gets to pick sides in the context of weakening boundaries where individualistic choice is the default posture (see, Bauman, individualization). And so, supporting as individualized identity becomes easily a multiple identity and switching from one allegiance to another becomes an available strategy (much to the chagrin of nationalist and anti-immigrant political groups) for whom anything less than total devotion is akin to treason (except if the team itself is made of x-generation immigrants, in which case, any defeat – or lack of anthem-singing – will be interpreted as lack of loyalty to the nation).
Yup, I’ll be watching the World Cup. And a few media outlets have come up with some great dataviz on the subject. My favorite so far comes from the Economist, and you can spend a lot of time playing with this one:
It is fully interactive and it visualizes all the World Cup goals with a lot of neat filters (countries, year, stage). You can see which countries are big scorers and try to derive playing style based on that.
Business Insider looks at the average temperatures at kick-off (it will be interesting to see if that correlates with other things, like goals scored, etc.):
More interesting is this dataviz dashboard that comprises information regarding which league players play in during the regular season, as well as the experience v. age factors:
And here is a bunch of various stats on the World Cup (the whole scrolling thing is a bit tedious… simplicity is often better):
And via Le Monde (in French), here is a dataviz video summarizing roughly the same statistical info:
The World Cup is about to start, so, unsurprisingly, football is in the news a lot and I have noticed the publication of quite a bit of dataviz relating to sport in general, and football in particular.
Top and bottom five by average team age (not age by players where the oldest is 43 and the youngest is 18):
The oldest teams are in Latin America and the youngest two are in Africa but the spread is pretty narrow (about three years).
Top and bottom five by caps:
Spain won in 2010, so, it kinda makes sense that they would use experienced players. However, France, for instance (we all remember their great “performance” in 2010) has a comparatively low number of caps for a country that won 16 years ago and was finalist after that. Maybe there’s a generational change at work. I am surprised that Japan would rank so high. Japan is not a big football team on the international scene. Or maybe there is a limited pool of players, so, they get to accumulate more caps.
Top 10 by number of international goals:
The top three are really not surprising at all. In number of goals, Spain and Germany completely outclass every other team. But where are Brazil, Argentina, or Italy?
Clubs with 10 or more players in the World Cup:
No surprise here either. It is the Big teams (those that can afford these kinds of players) that top the list. Note the large representation of the English Premier League. Speaking of which…
Leagues with the most players featured:
The wealthy leagues top the list. Again, no surprise here.
Top and bottom teams with players based in home country:
We know the big leagues extract players out of other countries (especially African countries). That’s another resource flow from the periphery to the core.
But football is a global sport and the migration of players outside their own countries during regular season is also well illustrated by this dataviz (I’ll put the ginormous but interesting version below the fold) by the Pew Research Center:
But sports also involve spectatorship and the Economist has done some data work on that as well:
Even though, the US tops the list with attendance figures for the NFL, that is a relatively small percentage of the population. Surprisingly (at least, for me) is the largest percentage that goes to the Australian football league. Also note that Canada is counted with the US except for football. One could argue that the US has three popular sports (football, baseball, and basketball, then, to a smaller extent, hockey) where other countries tend to have one largely dominant sport (often football).
“We evaluate every draft eligible player on the planet … As I told the media yesterday, she would have to excel in workouts to get drafted. I have no problem giving her that opportunity. I hope she gives it a shot.”
Cuban’s remarks about Griner and her ability were conditional, based on her trying out for the team. He wasn’t offering her a seat on the bench, merely a chance to determine if her skill level deemed her worthy of a Mavericks jersey.”
And predictably, at the slightest hint of challenge to the patriarchal and phallocratic order – by having a few women cross the borders into exclusively male territory – a sh*tstorm exploded:
And the usual threats of physical violence, rape and murder.
Now this is interesting in light of the case of Caster Semenya. Caster Semenya is the South African track and field athlete who had to undergo a series of degrading procedures to ascertain that she was really a woman, because she was too good to be a woman, so, athletic authorities had to check. She was then ordered to undergo hormonal treatment to lower her performance level closer to a “normal” woman level. Commentators indicated that it would be unfair to have her compete with women if she had an advantage (hormonal levels, for instance).
But, as Dave Zirin writes in his book Game Over, women cannot win when it comes to sports and the Griner case is no different:
“These misogynistic jokes discredit Griner’s ability to play ball with men by tapping into old sexist ideas that women are always less than men and that their specific space in this world is wherever men are not. The very act of getting on Twitter and saying misogynistic things about such a popular female sports star is an act of desperation. It means to set right the balance that was upset when Cuban floated the idea of allowing Griner to try out for the NBA.
These transphobic jokes, like the misogynistic ones, devalue Griner because we live in a society that denigrates trans people in general and chafes whenever confronted by someone who does not fit into a neat box of “feminine woman” or “masculine man”. Because athletes are seen as “masculine”, female athletes, by being athletic, are no longer feminine.”
So, a woman athlete is either not woman enough (to play with men) or not a woman at all (in which case, she’s a freak and can’t play with men either).
What this framing does is (1) shift the discussion completely away from the actual skills of the athlete in question, (2) reinforces the gender boundaries: men and women in sports have to fit in neat, separate boxes, no overlap possible, no path back and forth allowed; gender is exclusively binary; (3) overall reinforces patriarchal and phallocratic norms where women cannot win (remember Durkheim’s functions of deviance?): fit in culturally and patriarchally accepted and enforced gender norms and one is seen as inferior to men; don’t fit in gender norms and enjoy the torrent of misogyny and transphobia coming your way. The safest alternative then is to step back in line and let gender status take precedence over athletic status.
Over at Sociology in Focus, Dave Mayeda has a new post on the intersections between masculinity, rape culture and sports and explores masculine bonding as constructed against a feminine “other” seen as the out-group. This was especially visible in the Steubenville case:
“But it’s more than the ways that male athletes are treated as public heroes who can do as they please in societies where sport is deeply embedded in society’s power structure. Sporting culture also seeps into male groups, where individuals within them simultaneously aim to out-do and bond with each other through others’ exploitation. This masculine bonding can be committed against females or males, but in the process, the victim is typically feminized, irrespective of his or her sex.
In the Steubenville case, this gendered bonding and exploitation is clearly visible, as the adolescent males enhanced their friendship through the physical and subsequent verbal/online abuse of the female victim. Karen Franklin, in her important article, “Enacting masculinity: antigay violence and group rape as participatory theater,” notes further that males who participate in such activities are actually compensating for masculine insecurities by performing and showing off in front each other, at the expense of the feminized victim.“
And now, there is the case of Mike Rice, at Rutgers University:
I think this video perfectly illustrates the point Dave was making. The coach asserts his power and superior status through physical posturing, pushing, showing, throwing the ball, and accompanying all this physical display with a torrent of homophobic slurs directed at the players. This utterly patriarchal behavior (the power of the fatherly figure) not only reinforces the dominance and power of the coach but also acts as social control mechanism against the players. It is a form of gender socialization directed at male player behavior: what traits they are expected to display and what happens when they do not.
As was demonstrated very convincingly some time ago by Jackson Katz in Tough Guise, such name-calling (and here, the physical bullying) operates to keep young men in a very small box of acceptable masculinity, posited as completely opposed to anything feminine or gay.
As Mayeda states,
“The prevention of such violence is not about telling women and girls how to dress or behave. It’s about socializing boys and young men to develop a socially healthier form of masculinity. At 18:20 of the Aljazeera video, social workers discuss how teenage males learn about their maleness, sex, and intimate relationships through highly violent means (e.g., pornography and violent peers). The need then, is for men with healthier social outlooks to take leadership in teaching the younger generations of boys what it means to be male.”
Well, add violent and homophobic coaches to the list.
I do not follow sports, except for the World Cup of Soccer. And I especially do not follow American sports such as baseball, basketball or football (or as we Europeans call it, American football, since the real football is what Americans call soccer). But, I do enjoy reading Dave Zirin’s columns and books. So, I was happy to pick up his latest, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.
The book is a global tour of what sports trends that Zirin finds encouraging as they match his lefty politics. So, he takes us on a tour that includes the role of soccer fans in the revolution in Egypt and more broadly the Arab Spring, or athletes as labor fighting back against corporate league bosses and owners, women pushing for greater opportunities, and gay players coming out. Overall, Zirin sees major shifts in the world of sports, hence the “Game Over” title, as it points to the idea that sports is not the same. Something dramatic is changing. And as with any progressive change, there is backlash.
“Over the last thirty years, the athletic-industrial complex has transformed itself into a trillion dollar, global entity. One way it’s done this is by making its product and its players as explicitly apolitical as possible. From Peyton Manning to Derek Jeter to Danica Patrick, the dominant message projected by athletes has been that it’s far more important to be a brand than an individual, and that a modern jock should never sacrifice commercial concerns for political principle. This credo echoes Jesse Owens, the great Olympic star, who once said, “The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside.”
ESPN, twenty-four-hour talk radio, and a seemingly bottomless appetite for distraction have exploded the size of our sports world— and its profits— into the stratosphere. In conjunction with this expansion, politics has also been actively discouraged by management and slammed by sports columnists. Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell toward the end of his life dubbed it rule number one of “the jockocracy”: sports and politics just don’t mix.
Yet over the last several years, the specter of politics has been haunting sports. Cosell’s Golden Rule has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached. More athletes are speaking out across the political spectrum as a series of revolutions, occupations, and protests has defined the global landscape. The real world is gaining on the sports world and the sports world is starting to look over its shoulder.” (Locs. 258-270)
As always, Zirin has a punchy writing style and he definitely takes sides. At the same time, there is, unsurprisingly, in every line, an undying love of sport. But Zirin always has an eye for the relationships between sports and society, dominance and resistance. This is true here as well.
“Our sports culture shapes societal attitudes, relationships, and power arrangements. It is where cultural meanings— our very notions of who we are and how we see each other, not only as Americans but also as individuals— play out. It frames the ways in which we understand and discuss issues of gender, race, and class. And, as ever, it is crucial for understanding how these norms and power structures have been negotiated, struggled with, and resisted.” (Locs 367-370)
The book is rich in stories in context that will keep even the least interested reader (like me) interested in the subject. Overall, in the US, Zirin sees the end of the “shut up and play” rule where athletes are not supposed to have opinions beyond their brand preferences. And there is often a price to pay if players do speak up and get political.
At the same time, Zirin reminds readers that players are labor, with unions, operating in environments of unprecedented corporate power and owners who engage in David Harvey’s accumulation by extraction, passing on the burden of the economic crisis and bad managements to the players. In that sense, sports is a perfect reflection of socioeconomic trends that affect the American society as a whole.
And so, the lockouts we have all heard of over the previous years are about very basic labor issues:
“Our side of the table, the average career for a football player is 3.6 years. It takes you three years and three games in order to get five years of health care coverage when you’re done playing. If you play any less than three years you don’t get any health care coverage when you retire. If you play three years and three games, you still only get five years . . . so you take a guy who graduates from college at 22, the average career is 3.6 years, let’s say he plays four years. Players are retiring at the ripe old age of 26. Five years of health care coverage and everything after that, every injury you have is a preexisting condition. Try to find insurance for that. So when they say to me, it’s a battle between billionaires and millionaires, that’s where I start.” (Locs 520-525).
Of course, in different ways, a lot of Americans face this exact same situation with the health care system. Athletes get it much younger and much more dramatically.
This corporate power is accompanied by what has long been Zirin’s pet peeve, and the subject of his previous book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (reviewed here), massive public subsidies to very wealthy teams and their “wronged billionaire” owners. And as with the American society where wealth has been transferred upwards over the past thirty years, the same goes for the big leagues, like the NBA, where massive wealth gets transferred from the public and the players to the owners.
But why was soccer fanhood so central to the Arab Spring?
“In many countries with an authoritarian bent, the clubs are allowed to exist and even thrive, under the tacit understanding that it’s better for young, frustrated men to take out their anger on themselves and the police than on the government.” (Locs 732-733)
Thus were born the Egyptian Ultras who were so present on Tahrir Square. And so, as much as they were supposed to stay away from politics, the Ultras trained themselves to be revolutionaries as they went against the other fans. Similarly, athletes and fans in Bahrain also took to the streets, with less success though. Several star players were arrested and tortured there.
Even more globally, to have the privilege of organizing a major sports event, such as the Olympics or the World Cup of Soccer often means a shock doctrine for the less privileged:
“Increasingly, these rising economic powers are also vying for the honor and prestige of hosting international sporting events. In the twenty-first century, such events require more than merely stadiums and hotels. The host country must provide a massive security apparatus, the means to crush any opposition, and the ability to create the kind of “infrastructure” that modern games demand. That means not just stadiums, but sparkling new stadiums; not just security, but the latest in antiterrorist technology; not just new transportation to and from venues, but the removal of unsightly poverty along those paths. That means a willingness to spend billions of dollars in the name of creating a playground for international tourists and multinational sponsors. What this all requires is what the decaying Western powers, at this point, cannot provide: massive deficit spending and a state police infrastructure ready to displace, destroy, or disappear anyone who dares stand in their way.” (Locs 993-1000)
For anyone following the British press, there was a lot of coverage of these issues before the London Olympics. And one just has to look at current events to find items reflecting exactly that:
“Brazilian riot police armed with batons, teargas and pepper spray have forcibly evicted an indigenous community from a dilapidated museum complex next to the Maracanã football stadium.
The forced relocation, which led to scuffles, arrests and accusations of brutality, comes amid growing pressure on the hosts of the next World Cup to accelerate preparations that have fallen far behind schedule. Renovation of the stadium, which will host next year’s final, was supposed to have been completed at the end of last year, but there are doubts that it will be ready for a friendly between England and Brazil in June.
The museum has been the focus of a protracted legal battle between squatters, who claim the site should be used to promote indigenous culture, and the municipal authorities, who want to knock down a graffiti-covered eyesore and modernise the area before the world’s attention moves to Rio de Janeiro.
“We were negotiating, and then the government resorted to force,” said Urutau Guajajara, a bare-chested man wearing a feathered headdress who described himself as a professor of the Guajajara ethnic group. “The police were very violent.”
“It was shocking,” said Ingrid Paul, an Argentinian who has lived in the community for the past three weeks. “The police were obviously preparing for a fight. They came in with masks at 2:30am. We were all affected by the gas, even a three-year-old child.”
After their eviction, some of the indigenous people were taken to temporary housing provided by the government. Others sang songs, smoked pipes and handed out leaflets declaring: “513 years of struggle: resist the expulsion of the multi-ethnic indigenous group of the Maracanã.”
In the aftermath, police and TV helicopters buzzed overhead. Officers armed with automatic rifles cordoned off the area and several dozen police vehicles – including armoured personnel carriers – lined the streets.
The government says it is necessary to raze the building as part of the renovation of a rundown area that is supposed to be transformed into a sports and entertainment hub.”
It is all here: the pushing the poor to the side so they don’t stain the perfect landscape for the global media; the militarization of security, the use private military / security companies with shady accounting and overspending of public monies; the forced and inadequate relocations. It is the cleansing of urban centers for the benefit of the global elite and the few who will be able to afford the steep ticket prices for the main events (with massive corporate buys that leave a lot of empty seats as happened in London). And ultimately, the public will be stuck with the bill. In the case of the World Cup in South Africa, Zirin coined this phenomenon “Invictus in reverse” where it even got worse:
“Then there were the assassinations. In a story that made international news but gained next to no notice in the United States, two people (on a discovered list of twenty) were assassinated for “whistle-blowing” on suspected corruption in the construction of the $ 150 million Mbombela Stadium. The Sunday World newspaper attained the list, which included two journalists and numerous political leaders.” (Locs 1230-1233)
Nevertheless, in a country plagued by massive poverty and the heritage of apartheid, enormous amounts of money were spent on infrastructure just for one global event, like the grandiose Moses Mabhida Stadium.
And of course, no political opposition must be seen or heard at global sports events. No dissent must be allowed. The poor and disadvantaged must be out of sight. Only the “approved” vendors are allowed, so regular street vendors are pushed out of the way and reap no benefit from the in-pouring of global money. And the global media will be silent on the police brutality that will necessarily occur. Nothing must ruin the global spectacle.
Inevitably as well, Zirin devotes a full chapter to the shame of Penn State and its revered coach in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
“This is what happens when a football program becomes the economic, social, and spiritual heartbeat of an entire region. Joe Paterno was the personification of everything that made Penn State matter in football, in academics, and in much of the state. When something becomes that valuable, a certain mind-set kicks in: Protect JoePa. Protect Nittany Lions football. Protect the brand above all. In a company town, your first responsibility is to protect the company.
But Penn State never was an “outlaw program.” It was what every school was supposed to aspire to become. Now every athletic director or school president has to reckon with the fact that they have been looking up to an institution that places such value on football that children can become collateral damage. Let JoePa’s last teachable moment be this: If your football coach is the highest-paid, most revered person on your campus, you have a problem. If your school wins multiple championships and a booster drops money to build a statue of the coach, tear it the hell down. And if you think children are being raped, the minimum just isn’t good enough, no matter whether or not you wear a crown.” (Kindle Locs 1695-1703)
And Zirin has a few choice words as well for the students who rioted in support of Paterno and his team, a jock culture that has mutated into malignancy, as he calls it. And in the wake of the Steubenville horror, these words certainly ring true. At the same time, Zirin is also critical of the way the NCAA interjected itself into what is a legal matter. Zirin also has a full chapter on the NCAA and its exploitation of student-athletes in the context of state retrenchment from academia:
“Given the grim budgetary realities that surround state universities today, the numbers boggle the mind. According to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the 120 bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent in 2011. Average pay has now ballooned to $ 1.5 million annually, an increase from $ 1.1 million. Over the last six seasons, football coach salaries have risen by an astonishing 55 percent. This has happened as tuition hikes, furloughs, and layoffs have continued unabated. In an era of stagnating and falling wages, compensation for coaching a college football team traces a trend line that rises like a booster’s adrenaline during bowl season. The question is how— not just how this is possible given the stark economic realities of most institutions, but how schools can be this shameless.” (Locs 1864-1869)
Intercollegiate sport is unsustainable but it is somehow sacred and therefore protected from cuts. And despite claims to the contrary, Zirin shows that money from athletics does not trickle to the rest of academic institutions.
He does cover race, gender and LGBT issues in sport, with a specific focus on Caster Semenya and her shameful treatment by the sports authority, dedicated to determining her gender, even if it meant subjecting her to a series of degradation ceremonies. Zirin argues that there is something especially rotten when it comes to gender and track and field.
“Track and field has had a particular preoccupation with gender, especially when it intersects with race. Fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that the International Olympic Committee create a separate category of competition for black women, “the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites.’ ” For years, women athletes had to parade naked in front of Olympic officials for inspection. This gave way to more “sophisticated gender testing” to determine if athletes have what officials still perceive as the ultimate advantage: being a man.
Let’s leave aside that being male is not the be-all, end-all of athletic success; wealth, coaching facilities, nutrition, and opportunity determine the development of a world-class athlete far more than a Y chromosome ever could. Essentially, the physical reality of intersex people calls into question fixed notions we are taught to accept about men and women in general, and athletes in sex-segregated sports like track and field in particular.” (Locs 2334-2342)
So, in the case of Caster Semenya,
“In the Caster Semenya case, there are important questions few in the sports media dared ask. Why should it matter if she is maxing out her every biological advantage? No one claims that basketball star Yao Ming had an unfair advantage because he is seven foot five. No one asked if swimmer Michael Phelps’s mammoth, flipper-like feet unfairly skewed the competition. If anything, he was praised for being, as one announcer said breathlessly, “built to swim!” Why isn’t Caster Semenya, with her slender hips and powerful muscles, “built to run”? If Semenya’s biology is not “normal,” it’s worth asking, what world-class athlete does have a normal body?” (Locs 2346-2351)
We can all suspect what the answers are to these questions. And they all point to our collective discomfort when it comes to intersex individuals and anyone, for that matter, who does not fit neatly in the socially-acceptable gender boxes. But Zirin sees a few hopeful signs of greater openness in the world of LGBT sports.
But racism has not disappeared either and Zirin is merciless towards NBA commissioner Stern:
“Racism reverberates with particular strength in the NBA because no other sport tries so aggressively to market African American players to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class “ticket-buying” audience. This dynamic causes a set of resentments and tensions that Stern seems unable to navigate. Instead of building bridges, he napalms them. Every scuffle, every fight, every elbow on the court is subject to the kind of hand-wringing that would be unheard of in fight-happy hockey. Every scandal is a commentary on the culture, attitudes, or even, as ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd opined, the “absence of fathers” in the African American community. In other words, race is discussed, but never explicitly— and never as a way of analyzing the assumptions of the analysts themselves. Instead, the discussion often merely reinforces racist attitudes about players, their backgrounds, and their states of mind.” (Locs 2766-2772)
So, as one reaches the end of Zirin’s book, which is mostly about hopeful trends, one does wonder whether these trends are real or just a set of nice anecdotes but far from social movements to make sports more publicly accountable, more labor-friendly, less racist, sexist and homophobic. Frankly, I don’t know. Sometimes, it seems as if Zirin is overplaying his hand but then, he’s the expert, not me.
But then, it does not take much to remind us of the persistence of racism in the world of sports, whether from audience at stadiums in Europe or sports commentators:
“The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is, if you think about it, a pretty nasty song. It dreams, in one of its more memorable verses, that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields.” It’s a rousing anthem, to be sure, and I myself can frequently be heard humming it to myself in advance of a match being played by Les Bleus, or as I ride my bike or do the dishes. I’ve found that it’s sometimes hard to find a French person (at least if you hang out, as I do, with too many intellectuals), who can actually sing it without irony. And yet, over the past 26 years, the question of whether a particular subset of French men – those who play on the national football team – sing the Marseillaise under certain conditions has been a rather unhealthy obsession in France (we’ve blogged about it before, when Kinshasa-born flanker Yannick Nyanga sobbed uncontrollably during the anthem ahead of a rugby match vs Australia last year).
We are now being treated to what feels to me like Act 467 of this drama. Karim Benzema, as anyone who attentively watches French football matches knows, doesn’t sing the anthem before matches. In a recent interview, asked why, he answered in a pleasingly flippant way: “It’s not because I sing that I’m going to score three goals. If I don’t sing the Marseillaise, but then the game starts and I score three goals, I don’t think at the end of the game anyone is going to say that I didn’t sing the Marseillaise.” Pushed further on the question, he invoked none other than Zinedine Zidane who, like Benzema, was the child of Algerian immigrants to France – and who also happens to be the greatest French footballer of all time, and the one to whom the team owes its one little star on its jersey: “No one is going to force me to sing the Marseillaise. Zidane, for instance, didn’t necessarily sing it. And there are others. I don’t see that it’s a problem.”
Ah, Karim, but it is a problem, don’t you see? In fact, your decision about whether to vocalize or not, as you stand in line under the careful scrutiny of cameras, about to enter into a hyper-stressful and aggressive sporting match during which your every action will be dissected and discussed, is an unmistakable sign about whether or not the true France will survive or alternatively be submerged in a tide of unruly immigrants and their descendants.
Notwithstanding the fact that, as Michel Platini has noted, in his generation no footballers ever sang the Marseillaise, and that “white” footballers – even the Muslim Franck Ribéry, who at best mutters a bit during the anthem but is much more enthusiastic in his pre-game prayers to Allah – are rarely if ever asked this particular question, even so some will continue to insist that your choice not to sing is a window onto your disloyal soul. As the Front National explained: “This football mercenary, paid 1484 Euros per hour, shows an inconceivable and inacceptable disdain for the jersey that he is lucky to be able to wear. Karim Benzema does not “see the problem” with not singing the Marseillaise. Well, French people wouldn’t see any problem with having him no longer play for the French team.””
For the record, I’m French “de souche”, white. I know La Marseillaise is a stupid war song and I never bothered to learn it and I have never sung it in public events. But the whole “disdain for the French jersey” theme is not new and it came to the fore especially after the incident at the World Cup of Soccer in South Africa where the French team refused to train and practice and ultimately, left the tournament in shame (see my review of a French book on this very subject).