The FFF: Incompetent Or Worse?

 If ever one has a problem but can’t puzzle out the core issue that needs to be solved there is always the option of asking a national FA for some input. Not because they’ll give you the right answer but precisely because they are so adept at missing the point that whatever course of action they recommend is sure to miss the point. The race row currently engulfing France perfectly typifies this ineptitude. As best their desire to limit the number of opportunities based on the colour of someone’s skin is staggeringly incompetent and at worst indicates serious racism at the French Football Federation (FFF). The suggestion strikes at the very heart of the republic. Had such a policy been installed (which is clearly will not be now) it would undermine the very identity of France as a nation founded on ideals of “Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite”. If the real concern is about a talent drain this harebrained solution completely misses the point.

  For those that haven’t been keeping up with the scandal there has been huge controversy is over the desire of FFF to place a limit on the number of black players to be trained in France in an attempt to make the national team “more French”. Technical director Francois Blaquart has already been suspended and the axe is hanging very ominously over the Under-21’s coach Erick Mombaerts and the FFF President Fernand Duchaussoy. National team manager Laurent Blanc is another who may still end up getting the boot for his involvement after saying “you have the impression that they really train the same prototype of players: big, strong, powerful … what is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks.”  However Alou Diarra has already spoken up in defence of the man who was his manager first at Bordeaux then in the national side. Furthermore Blanc captained the famous “Black-Blanc-Beur” (Black-White-Arab) side that won the 1998 World Cup which included players like Lillian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Patrick Vieira. That side represented a high point in national unity with players from so many different backgrounds all playing their part in the victory. Since then, like much of Europe, France’s relationship with immigration, ethnic minorities and the nature of citizenship has been a very delicate affair.

  The ( fairly reasonable) fear of the FFF is that it will invest millions of Euros in training players who will then up sticks and decide to play for another country. The supposed purpose of the quota was to ensure that only those players who would definitely play for the French national team should get the benefit of academies such as Clairfontaine. However this misses two key points. Firstly, the vast majority of the players who opt to play for another nation are those that have little chance of ever getting into the French national side. Secondly, France is hardly innocent in luring talents away from other countries. Zidane was born in Algeria. Patrick Vieira is from Senegal. Both were captured by the French FA and were instrumental in both the 1998 victory and the 2006 run to the final. So to complain of other nations trying to tempt away talent is hypocrisy of the worst kind.

  If the ultimate goal of the FFF is to improve the French national side then the policy is incredibly misguided. As Stefan Syzmanski and Simon Kuper point out in Soccernomics it is vital to make your potential talent pool as wide as possible in order to maximise use of resources. Ungrounded fears over a talent drain to other countries will lead to an artificial limiting of the talent pool in French academies thereby weakening the national side in the long run. Sadly, the race row surrounding the FFF is not an isolated incident.

  Although race relations in France are very complicated both internally and with regard to the former colonies and cannot be regarded in a strictly negative way there has been a notable rise in anti-immigration sentiment in France. The Sarkozy government which has always contained right wing elements has shifted further that way in recent years, taking a strong line in such issues as banning headscarves and the expulsion of the Roma gypsy population. With the National Front leader Marine Le Pen getting an astonishingly high approval rating of 23% in recent polls there is no doubt that the far right in France has a decent level of support and there are concerns about who should and shouldn’t be considered French.

  Charlotte Beck of Strasbourg University has suggested that a question that has been present in education for a number of years is now moving into sport. In the same way that the debate over the headscarves worn by Muslim students was part of the debate over who is and isn’t French, so football is posing the same questions. When the national side was winning World Cups or European Championships there was no problem with them being considered French but after the utter farce of the 2010 World Cup the debate has been reignited. In much the same way as Andy Murray is British when winning and Scottish when losing the second or third generation immigrants in the French side are only French as long as they are doing well.

  Of course the question is far too complex to be adequately discussed here but the fact that such a incredibly ill-judged policy could even be considered at the highest levels of the FFF is deeply disturbing. There is no question that the policy would have a detrimental effect on the French national team in the long run but even more concerning is the suggestion that the heads of the Federation are reflecting the view that a person’s “Frenchness” can be judged based on the colour of their skin. If we assume the best about those who contemplated this quota then we give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t know what they were doing. It would be far worse to believe that they did.

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